Protesting against precariousness at Puerta del Sol, Madrid, June 2011.
When “milleurista” was coined in 2005 – a term denoting someone living on €1000 per month – it highlighted the plight of young workers with insecure, low-paid jobs. Today, with one out of two young people on the dole, becoming a “milleurista” has become something to aspire to.Excerpts.
Six years ago, in August 2005, a young Catalan woman wrote a letter to this newspaper. It was titled “I am a mileurista”, a term she had come up with herself to describe those who earned around a thousand euros a month. Carolina Alguacil was then 27 years old, and she complained of the dearth of real jobs available to her generation.
“The mileurista is young,” she wrote, “between 25 and 34, with a degree, well-educated, at least bilingual, has postgraduate or masters degrees complemented by professional diplomas. In the labour market three or four years, hopefully half of them paying social security contributions […]. The trouble is that you don’t make more than a thousand euros, without perks, and you had better not complain. You can’t save, you don’t have a home, or a car, or any children. You live for the day. Sometimes it's fun, but it’s getting tiring.”
To reread that letter today leaves a bitter taste, because it’s evidence that things have got worse. The mileurismo has given way to an even more precarious version of itself: nimileurismo – not even a thousand euros a month. “We used to be mileuristas, and we wanted more. Now we hope to earn a thousand euros,” Alguacil continues. She studied audiovisual communications, is on her own and has since moved to Cordoba. She is no longer a mileurista, but does not think she is earning what she should: “I’m not content.”
In 2005 youth unemployment stood at about 20 percent. Now it’s creeping up to 50 percent and for a long time it’s been double the European average (22.4 percent). In Spain, the best-educated generation ever has the worst outlook since Spain returned to democracy, and it feels that it’s paying for others’ excesses. Until now, many of these young people had been able to count on help from their parents. But some have exhausted that safety net.
“All the indicators have worsened, every one of them,” says sociologist Esteban Sánchez, an expert on youth and the fragile job market. “Extremely high unemployment, a preponderance of casual work and low wages. It’s been tremendous. There is not one single fact that could give rise to some kind of positive outlook.” Guillermo Jiménez, 21, student of Law and Political Science, from the Association of University Youth without a Future, sums it up: “The feeling all round is that there is no future.”
Return to the family home
More than ten million Spaniards are between 18 and 34. Their average net income (including the unemployed) is 824 euros per month. And those who have jobs earn, on average, 1,318 euros a month (data from the Youth Council of Spain). Professions that once seemed safe from mileurismo are safe no longer. The Polytechnic University of Valencia tracked the first steps of its engineering and architecture graduates following their graduation in 2008, and found that one in four has not hit that salary level of a thousand euros a month. What’s worse, the number of nimileurismos had grown by eight percent compared to graduates of a year earlier.
Amanda (she doesn’t want to give her real name), a 29-year from Valencia, puts a face to the statistics. Working from ten in the morning till 9:30 at night, “with half an hour to eat”, she earns a thousand euros a month. “It's surreal, but when I leave home the store hasn’t opened and when I get home, it’s already closed. I work like a manager, but I get paid like a dishwasher.”
Two conflicting feelings exist in Amanda in an odd harmony: the feeling of being both exploited and privileged. Until she found her current job in a sales department, she felt like “the eternal intern. There were six of them, one after the other. The first was without pay. Well, I did get meal vouchers. And the last, for a public organisation, was the best paid – 600 euros.”
Of those under 34s who are unemployed, 45 percent have spent more than 12 months looking for work, according to data of Josep Oliver, professor of Applied Economics at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.
Many young Spaniards who had become independent have had to return to the family home (in 2011 the rate of young people flying the family nest contracted to 4.2 percent). Others have been completely unable to get away, like Beatriz Arrabal, 32. With no work or benefits for 550 days now, she has still not shed her optimism. With a Diploma in Social Work and Public Administration and Management, she paid for her schooling working as tele-operator for 1,100 euros, a salary she feels is well out of her reach today. Most of her jobs after she obtained her diploma have had nothing to do with her vocation.
Her boyfriend has no stable job either, and they have considered leaving Spain. But the situation at home, where she has to care for her sick father (both live on his pension), holds her back.
Living worse off than their parents
Last November 10, on Facebook, Beatriz started the group “Social Work: how to find our niche.” “I decided to set up this group to help us find a niche in our profession, bringing along our experiences, and to see how we can help,” she wrote by way of introduction.
The word ‘discouraged’ falls short when it comes to describing how many of those who bet everything on the construction boom feel today. Long-term unemployment is particularly cruel to them, notes Josep Oliver. Like most of the unemployed who did not finish high school (unemployment in this category is as high as 55 percent among the under-30s), the protagonists of this contemporary fable scrape by as best they can.
In Granada, a young pair of recent graduates is coping with the other side of the problem: over-qualification, which affects 37 percent of those under 30 with university studies or higher vocational training. Natalia, 25, is a speech therapist and clinical analysis technician. Her boyfriend, Jesus, 23, is an industrial technical engineer. Both peddle insurance door-to-door.
“If it’s for funeral expenses, I get 200 euros, and if it’s life insurance, 120,” she says. “Some months I bring home 900 euros and others only 90.” Natalia believes she can soon leave that job behind, as a psychology practice has offered her a position as speech therapist, although she must find her own clients.
Of the young, 75 percent believe they will live worse off than their parents. Of the older generation, 70 percent share that opinion. And while some young people are seeking to become self-employed (54 percent of young Spaniards would like to start their own business, according to Eurostat), the government is drawing up the new rules of the game that will shape the course of the economy – and of each one of them.
68 percent of young Spaniards willing to leave Spain
So far, its most relevant offer to this generation is a labour reform that eventually will boost youth employment, but which will also lower wages. “The reform is dwelling on what has already been done: pay youth less for their work than other workers, which is a way of acknowledging the impotence of the Spanish labour market,” says Santos Ruesga, applied economics professor at the Autonomous University of Madrid.
In the absence of expectations, many of the best minds of the best-educated generation are packing their suitcases, starring in a brain drain that is “unprecedented”, in the words of Fátima Báñez, Minister of Employment and Social Security. According to the European Commission’s latest Eurobarometer, 68 percent of young Spaniards are willing to leave Spain. Only five countries – of 31 countries surveyed – beat us: Iceland, Sweden, Bulgaria, Romania and Finland.
Rafael Aníbal, 28, is a journalist. In November he lost his job and by now he has exhausted his savings. Exploring options abroad, he’s weighing up heading to Chile, where he has learned that he can hope for a salary similar to the most he has ever earned in Spain: 1,100 euros.
In December, Aníbal started up a blog that collects testimonies of young people who have left the country – Pepas y Pepes 3.0”. “I did it out of anger. As a Cuban says in the film Havana Blues, by Benito Zanbrano, ‘Every day that passes I have more plants and dogs in my house than friends who have left.’ I like the phrase, and besides, it's true.
“I constantly ask myself these three things: what do I have to do with speculation, risk premiums or rating agencies? Why are we young people paying for a crisis that we have had absolutely no hand in?”