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Spain faces brain drain as its youth looks for a future abroad

Show of unity: Spain’s King Juan Carlos (centre) supported austerity cuts by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy - but expressed concern about their impact on Spanish youth. AAP

Half of Spain’s youth (that is, those under the age of 25) are now officially unemployed, while overall unemployment in Spain stands at 24.4%, according to the latest figures released by the Spanish Institute of Statistics INE. Both figures are almost exactly double the EU averages, according to the European Commission’s Eurostat.

The Spanish Government’s announcement of yet another round of drastic budget cuts - along with a tax increase - was was preceded by a Government visit to the royal residence, in a clear attempt to have the King’s approval of the evidently unpopular austerity measures.

Spain’s King Juan Carlos stood proudly in a group photo in apparent unconditional support of their decision, yet in his speech he warned that “nobody should be excluded from the economic recuperation”, explaining that he “thinks in particular about the youth and the unemployed”.

Yet it is difficult to see how the current government’s policy addresses the ongoing crisis of youth unemployment and lack of prospects. Recently released overall unemployment figures for June do indicate a 2.1% drop in unemployment compared to May. The drop, reflecting mainly the seasonal increase in temporary work in the tourist industry, is the highest in 16 years, but the number of long-term contracts signed in June 2012 was in fact 2.1% lower than in June 2011.

In the last 12 months close to half a million people joined the jobless ranks for a current total of over five and a half million, according to INE (the Government, using a different calculation formula, provides a figure of just over 4 and a half million), one million of which are under the age of 29, according to the Government-run Institute for the Youth. And half of all Spanish unemployed are under the age of 35.

“There won’t be new jobs created in the next 15 to 20 years,” says Monsterrat Beorlegui García, high school teacher and 15-M participant. “In any case,” she adds, “those who do work earn 600 euros a month. They’re being robbed of their future.” An MBA graduate who didn’t wish to be named has recently started a job for 600 euros a month, after two years of unsuccessful search. Repeated rejections were hard for him to accept not only because of economic hardship but also because they shattered his expectations, hopes and dreams for the future. And it is the shift in expectations that is a grave concern.

It takes the term mileurista (earning 1,000 euros a month) to a whole different meaning. Only a few years ago it meant those who were severely underpaid despite having tertiary and often postgraduate qualifications and lots of work experience, and therefore didn’t have means to build a future. Today it is used cynically to refer to the new dream of the highly qualified Spanish youth: to get a job that would pay 1,000 euros a month. For the first generation brought up entirely in democratic and economically prospering Spain, with the highest levels of education in the history of the country, this is indeed a bitter pill to swallow. Underpaid and exploited, they can only expect their income to go down as thousands more join ranks of the unemployed each month and the employers can get away with harsher work conditions and shorter contracts.

Is getting more education a solution? The State Secretary for Employment seems to think so. Yet through its actions the Government is sending a different message. Budget cuts reduced university staff salaries between 5% and 12% with further cuts to come, and from September there will be 20% more students in each class.

Enrolment fees for students will go up, especially for a second or third degree, making the coveted Masters, or cost of retraining for a more employable profession, a virtual impossibility, even more since some subsidies such as rent allowance will reduced by 30% (from 210 to 147 euros a month) and part-time positions to work while studying don’t exist on a market with astronomical unemployment figures.

Are Spanish youth still motivated then to study, even though degrees do not translate into employment and its cost is prohibitive? Yes, says Olga Martorell, a second year advertising and public relations student, who is committed to finishing her degree even though she doesn’t expect to find a job in Spain.

Personally she will welcome the opportunity to live abroad but she points out that for many it still isn’t the future they would choose. However, moving abroad might not be a value-based choice for this generation of Spaniards anymore; with no work available locally, many are drawn to other labour markets where they are highly valued and can build a future. Such is the case with Germany, actively recruiting Spanish engineers to fill job vacancies and offering career building opportunities unheard of in Spain.

As much as the Spanish Education Minister tries to deny it, Spain is experiencing a rapid brain drain, especially in the science-based knowledge areas.

A year ago 68% of Spanish youth were willing to emigrate for work.

As the new austerity measures are implemented, with more expected in the second half of the year, many more are likely to choose this option.

Aleksandra Hadzelek is currently researching Spain’s 15-M Movement and the political mobilisation of Spanish youth.

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