RIOFRIO, SPAIN – Sunday in Spain and time for lunch.
This small town, about an hour from the Mediterranean coast, is famous for the trout that are raised here in large concrete ponds. Families from all over Andalusia crowd into a dozen different restaurants.
Ours is the only table set for two. Many hold three generations, or even four. Next to us, three large young men enter together and dutifully embrace their abuela, or grandmother. It is a lovely scene except for one stark fact: Many of the young people we saw that Sunday are out of work. The unemployment rate for Spaniards under 25 is about 54 percent, and almost half of those under 30 still live with their parents.
Yes, families draw strength and nourishment from this weekly ritual. But in many cases they come together because young people have to rely on their parents for shelter, food and pocket money. “Spanish youth in crisis” reads a recent headline in the Financial Times, and the story quotes Ramon Espinar, spokesman for a group called Juventud Sin Futuro (Youth Without Future).
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“We used to have certain promises about our lives and how our lives would pan out,” he says. “They told us that if we study and go to college and learn languages, there would be a future for us, that we would be able to find work and live our life. That promise existed until 2008. But now that promise is broken for me and for a whole generation.”
The decade before 2008 was known here as las vacas gordas, the years of the “fat cows.” Tourism and construction boomed. Young people left school early, lured by well-paying but low-skill jobs.
But then, writes the FT, came “the housing bust, the banking crisis, debt, default and bankruptcies, the cruelty of the house evictions and the shame of the European bailout, the long and bitter recession and, of course, the loss of millions of jobs.”
The landscape is littered with evidence of reckless spending from those years. Luxury hotels sit empty on mountaintops. A large prison has never been opened because the state ran out of money.
Older people were often protected from disaster by stringent rules guaranteeing them job security and generous benefits. So when companies were forced to downsize, their children paid the price. And they’re still paying.
Economists describe the “scarring effect,” meaning that when young people fail to find work, they are at a permanent disadvantage and never reach their full earning potential. Moreover, they have to delay marriage, children and independence, and the psychic toll adds to the economic one.
“It is as if someone hit the pause button on your life,” one young Spaniard told the Financial Times.
These stay-at-home kids are so common – not just in Spain but throughout southern Europe – that they now have a name: NEETs. That stands for young people “Not in Employment, Education or Training,” and there are about 14 million across the continent.
The European Monitoring Centre on Change recently warned that having such a large number of NEETs poses a threat to social cohesion and stability. These young people “are at higher risk of being socially and politically alienated,” said the report. “They have a lower level of interest and engagement in politics and lower levels of trust.”
European leaders are finally paying attention. Last year they created the Youth Employment Initiative, a fund of more than $11 billion designed to help NEETs through enhanced job training, apprenticeships and subsidies. But so far the impact on jobless rates has been minimal.
The only real answer is steady, long-term economic growth that encourages employers to hire young people and pay them well. But European policymakers, like those in the United States, are split over how to generate that growth.
Mario Draghi, who heads the European Central Bank, made news last week by advocating “a more growth-friendly overall fiscal stance” to combat Europe’s persistently weak recovery, particularly in Southern countries like Spain, Greece and Italy.
But the northern Europeans, especially the Germans, who enjoy a much lower unemployment rate, continue to favor a more austere approach that prizes balanced budgets over spending and stimulation. And the expensive social benefits enjoyed by older workers add to budget woes all over Europe and limit policy options.
While the politicians quarrel, young Spaniards suffer. That abuela kissing her grandsons is certainly happy to have them around for Sunday lunch. But she’d be a lot happier if they had jobs to go to on Monday morning.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.