A letting agency in Madrid where prices have soared in recent years. (Photo fromEFE)

Young Spaniards’ struggle for independence facing another crisis

With the death toll well over 22,000 and the economy ground to a halt, the impact of COVID-19 on Spain has many fearing the worst. With less than one in five adults under the age of 30 having the means to move out of home, it’s likely that Spain’s young adults will ultimately once again be the ones to bear the brunt of what’s to come.

Right now, as Spain throws everything at its most serious humanitarian crisis since the 1936 Civil War, it feels a little bit trivial to talk economics, but it cannot be ignored.

It appears that the curve has finally begun to flatten but there are still many long days ahead for healthcare workers, whose hospitals continue to teeter on the edge of breaking point. The physical and mental toll on those on the front line has been tremendous.

Keeping the economy alive

While the Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez continues to juggle a tedious and treacherous domestic situation with an arm wrestle in Brussels, it’s clear that the priority — like all those countries badly affected by COVID-19 — is to get the spread under control and to relieve the pressure on emergency services. Only then will the bigger picture become clearer.

Dan O Brien, Chief economist at the Institute of International and European Affairs, has likened economies and the current global uncertainty to the human body in a coma; the longer it is deprived of oxygen, or in this case cash flow and activity, the more cells (companies) die off. Many businesses have closed across Spain; many will not re-open, making the prospect of re-starting the economy a daunting one.

Mr Sánchez and his coalition government have the task of battling a potent virus they initially underestimated while maintaining a supply of oxygen to the Spanish economy in the coming weeks and months in order to keep businesses afloat and stave off a historic depression. The tremors of another economic slump have already begun to be felt across the country with pay cuts and ERTES (temporary redundancies) being announced across virtually all sectors, from bar staff to professional footballers.

The high rate of temporary contracts is still a huge concern for the Spanish government, especially in the hospitality sector, upon which the livelihoods of some 1.7 million people depend. Tourism alone represents 12% of overall GDP and an estimated 13% of overall employment. Spain was visited by a record 83.7 million tourists in 2019, bringing the country to seven consecutive years of historical highs. This year will put an end to that run.

Spain’s unemployment rate at the end of the final quarter of 2019 was 13.7%, but the biggest concern still centres on the perilous position of the country’s young adults.

An unsustainable system

Expansión reported in February that 30.9% of adults under the age of 25 were unemployed. According to the body responsible for monitoring issues related to young people in Spain, CJE, a mere 18.5% of young adults between the age of 16–29 have found the means to move out of home, the lowest number since their records began in 2008. Given the fact that 55% of their contracts are temporary, it’s little wonder why this demographic suffers from economic instability.

La Vanguardia report that 25% of adults aged between 30 and 34, and 53% of those aged between 25 and 29, still live with their parents. “Imagine being 30 years old, wanting to start a family and not even being able to have privacy and space for yourself. Or having to keep living off your parents because you can’t find a job. It’s infuriating,” says Valencia-based football journalist Paco.

The average salary of the 16–29 demographic in Spain is €11,188, equating to €932 a month. In Madrid, the average Price of renting a bedroom is €402 and El País report that couples aged between 30 and 34 on an average salary are now able to afford a place in only 13 of the 128 neighbourhoods in the city. For many of these young couples renting a bedroom in shared accommodation or staying at home with their parents are the only options. As per El Confidencial, at the end of 2018 Madrid rent prices were up 13.7% on the year previous, an increase yet to be adequately reflected in salaries.

According to Eurostat, the average age in Spain for leaving home is 29.5 for females, 30.5 for males and the ongoing rental crisis, and another possible economic crisis, will only serve to bump up the average. Andrea, a 31-year-old accountant from Madrid, explains how the word “crisis” has come to represent a generation in Spain. “I think I’m so used to hearing the word that it no longer scares me. It feels normal.”

Living spaces

The vast majority of people in the urban areas of Spain live in pisos, small apartments, and as the days and weeks go by it will become tougher for the elderly who live alone, as well as young adults who find themselves still living with family or sharing an apartment with others, where personal space often equates to a bedroom with barely enough space to sleep and study, and little else. La Vanguardia report how 48% of the Spanish population live in dwellings measuring between 60 and 90 metres squared, with the majority in Madrid and Barcelona living in spaces at the lower end of this scale.

It’s little wonder, then, why — apart from climate reasons — life in Spain is lived on its streets and terraces, in its squares and parks. “We’re not used to being at home. Life on the street is one of the key parts of our national identity,” quips Paco.

Some have the luxury of bedroom with a balcony or windows with a view to the outside world; others stare out at dark internal patios or across to the neighbour’s kitchen. Things can begin to feel very claustrophobic very quickly.

Fran, a 28-year-old business centre receptionist from Getafe, in Madrid’s southern suburbs, explains how “buying a house continues to be virtually impossible, even with fixed employment contracts. I don’t really want to think about how things will be once this is all over.”

When asked about the struggle his generation face to gain financial independence, he says “It makes me feel terrible. The crisis which we have been carrying for over a decade has been, and continues to be, extremely hard. You can still see it. The thought of another one is overwhelming. It’s unfair because, while the current situation couldn’t have been prevented, the decisions made over the last 12 years could have been different.”

Just when it felt that Spain had, at last, been released of the stranglehold of “la crisis” and the double-dip recession, it looks like some young adults will be hit with their second economic crisis in a decade, forcing many to start from scratch and others to move back home.

Frustration

The rising demand for higher-level studies in an increasingly competitive job market means the average age of graduates entering the working world in Spain continues to increase. Couple this with low salaries and high rent prices and you realise just how desperate the situation has become. “I’ve seen lots of highly-qualified people struggle to find a stable job,” says Alejandro, an educational officer in Spain’s capital.

Frustration is the most common sentiment when you speak to those who have had to struggle through this situation.

“It’s very frustrating being an adult and not being able to leave home,” says 31-year-old journalist Antía.

“It’s unfair on the average worker. We are not guilty of these crises. We are not guilty of political mismanagement. We are not guilty of property speculation or market wars between countries,” argues Paco. “We just want to work, have stability and be able to live with some comfort.”

The dependence on parents to help out with deposits and other expenses is becoming less and less sustainable and more and more adults will find that they are unable to afford to have children; Spain’s birth rate will continue to fall and the country’s pension system will eventually come under even greater pressure.

Generational changes

Miguel, a 55-year-old father of two young adults trying to make their way in the working world, describes how a cultural and mindset shift has also contributed to the current situation: “The mentality has changed since our generation. We were like ants, working and saving everything we could. We didn’t travel like young people tend to today and we didn’t have as many things, be it entertainment or the newest technology, to spend our money on.”

Having a second home in other towns and villages is extremely common in Spain, and not restricted solely to the wealthy. “We were able to pay off a mortgage in 10 to 12 years and once it was paid off, people decided to buy another property, often at very low prices. Jobs were much more secure. That has all changed as we have seen in recent times where there is so much instability,” says Miguel.

When asked how it feels to be a parent at a time when so many young adults struggle to gain independence until much later in life, his exasperation is evident. “I’m very, very frustrated. It just seems like there’s no improvement. This generation doesn’t have the stability and security that we had. Many are living from week to week with the fear they could be released from their jobs at any moment.”

With the full extent of the coronavirus crisis yet to be established, glimmers of hope for future generations in Spain appear few and far between.

However, in a society so dependent on daily interactions and physical contact, all that’s on the mind of most locals right now is the desire to feel human again, to be with loved ones again.

Normality will eventually return to the streets of Spain — so too will the frustration.

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