Alba Méndez, a 24-year-old with a master’s degree in sociology, sprang out of bed nervously one recent morning, carefully put on makeup and styled her hair. Her thin hands trembled as she clutched her résumé on her way out of the tiny room where a friend allows her to stay rent free.
She had an interview that day for a job at a supermarket. It was nothing like the kind of professional career she thought she would have after finishing her education. But it was a rare flicker of opportunity after a series of temporary positions, applications that went nowhere and employers who increasingly demanded that young people work long, unpaid stretches just to be considered for something permanent.
Her parents were imploring her to return home to the Canary Islands to help run her father’s fruit business. It was a sign of the times, though, that even her own father probably would not be able to afford to pay her.
“We’re in a situation that is beyond our control”
Ms. Méndez said. “But that doesn’t stop the feelings of guilt. On the bad days, it’s really hard to get out of bed. I ask myself,
“What did I do wrong?”
The question is being asked by millions of young Europeans. Five years after the economic crisis struck the Continent, youth unemployment – for those 24 and younger – has climbed to staggering levels in many countries in September,:
- 57 percent in Greece
- 56 percent in Spain
- 40 percent in Italy
- 37 percent in Portugal
- 28 percent in Ireland. For people 25 to 30, the rates are half to two-thirds as high and rising.
Great Depression-like rates of unemployment
and there is no sign that European economies, still barely emerging from recession, are about to generate the jobs necessary to bring those Europeans into the work force soon, perhaps in their lifetimes.
Dozens of interviews with young people around the Continent reveal a creeping realization that the European dream their parents enjoyed is out of reach. It is not that Europe will never recover, but that the era of recession and austerity has persisted for so long that new growth, when it comes, will be enjoyed by the next generation, leaving this one out.
George Skivalos, 28, had to move back in with his mother two years ago in Athens. “Even if we get out of the crisis, maybe in four years, I’ll be 32, and then what?” Mr. Skivalos said. “I will have missed the opportunity to be in a company with upward mobility.”
Instead, many in the troubled south are carving out a simple existence for themselves in a new European reality. They must decide whether to stay home, with the protection of family but a dearth of jobs. Or they can travel to Europe’s north, where work is possible to find but where they are likely to be treated as outsiders. There, young people say, they compete for low-paying, temporary jobs but are sometimes excluded from the cocoon of full employment.
For the European Union, addressing the issue has become a political as well as an economic challenge at a time of expanding populist discontent with the leadership in Brussels and national capitals.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany has called youth unemployment “perhaps the most pressing problem facing Europe.” Ms. Merkel flew to Paris on Tuesday to join other European leaders at a special youth unemployment summit meeting called by President François Hollande of France. Governments renewed a pledge for an employment-promotion program worth 6 billion euros (about $8 billion) starting next year.
But economists said the program by itself was unlikely to put more than a bandage on a gaping wound. For members of the generation that came of age since the financial storm of 2008, promises of future aid and future growth only highlight questions about when, or whether, they will be able to make up for the lost years.
“We hope 2014 will be a year of recovery,” said Stefano Scarpetta, the director of employment, labor and social affairs at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. “But we are still looking at a very large number of youth who will have endured a long period of extreme difficulty. This will have a long-lasting effect on an entire generation.”
A Job, but Far From Home
Soon after her 23rd birthday four years ago, Melissa Abadía made a wrenching decision: She would leave her close-knit family in Spain, where the grinding fallout from the 2008 financial crisis had made securing a good job impossible, and move to the Netherlands, where employers were still hiring.
“When I got on the plane, I was crying,” Ms. Abadía, a bright, ebullient woman, recalled. “But I had to decide: Should I fight for something back home that makes no sense, or get out of there and make a life for myself?”
Despite five years of training in nursing in her hometown, Castellón de la Plana, in eastern Spain, she now works in a windowless stockroom in Amsterdam organizing purses, socks and other accessories at a clothing store.
It is a sign of the plight of her generation that simply having a job and a measure of independence makes her one of the lucky ones — never mind homesickness, dashed dreams of a very different career and a gradual acceptance that her life will probably never be the one she expected to live.
“Of course, I hate the fact that I have to do this,” she said, speaking in somber tones.
“Leaving your country should be a decision, not an obligation.”
Finding only unpaid internships and a temporary nightclub job in Spain, Ms. Abadía scoured the Internet for work in Europe’s more prosperous north. She quickly found employment as an au pair in Amsterdam.
For the first time, she experienced the shock of being an immigrant. Having arrived in Amsterdam as part of an influx of young Spanish, Greek, Italian and Portuguese men and women all searching for any employment:
“I now know what it’s like to be seen as someone who’s coming to steal jobs”
She soon found better-paying work at the clothing shop, near the Royal Palace. The store was crowded with at least 10 other young Spaniards who had migrated for employment.
She spent two years bouncing between short-term contracts, which employers have sharply increased during the crisis to cut costs and avoid the expensive labor protections granted to permanent employees.
In some countries, especially those with the highest youth unemployment rates, short-term contracts are nothing more than opportunities for employers to take advantage of the weak labor market.
But when used by employers as intended — to give experience to young people who otherwise could not get a start — they can lead to steady work. That was the case with Ms. Abadía, whose employer eventually turned her temporary job into a permanent contract with benefits overseeing the store’s biggest stockroom.
On one level, having even that kind of employment is a victory in today’s Europe. Her salary of €1,200 a month (about $1,600) was nearly twice what she could have expected to make in Spain.
“The day I signed a permanent contract was the best day of my life,” she said one recent weeknight, beaming as she sipped a Coke at a bustling pub.
“It is almost impossible to get one now in Spain,” she said. “Here, they trust me, a Spanish girl, and give me responsibilities. I can pay my rent, save money and be independent. I’m even writing a book.”
But because of her work hours, she still does not qualify for the Netherlands’ monthly minimum wage of €1,477 (about $2,000), and her new career was a long way from where she had always hoped to end up.
Discussing the path that had brought her to this point, Ms. Abadía became suddenly pensive. Adjusting to a life far from home in a job beneath her skills has been harder than she imagined.
“I gave up the thought of working as a nurse long ago,” she said. “With this job, I’m so tired sometimes that I can’t move. I don’t know what a weekend is anymore.”
Above all, Ms. Abadía still yearns for Spain. One evening, in an apartment near train tracks that she shared with two roommates, she gazed at photographs of her parents, her brother and her best friends, with whom she stays in touch via Skype. Colorful banners trumpeting “España” and “Castellón” were festooned above her door. Back home, her family had left her room untouched since the day she left.
“I miss them so much,” Ms. Abadía said. While she had gotten used to Amsterdam — its drizzly skies and the directness of the Dutch — “every morning I wake up and ask myself, why the hell am I still here?”
Last Christmas, she slipped into a mild depression alone in her apartment, knowing that her family was gathered around the dinner table back home. In her worst moments, Ms. Abadía said, she thinks about getting a one-way ticket home.
“But when you think properly about it, you realize you may see your family, but you are not going to find a job,” she said. “After two months, maybe you will go back to working in a club in the evenings, and after three you’ll realize, ‘I can’t handle it anymore; I need to leave again.’ ”
As she sat in her apartment, she discussed her situation with two colleagues from the store, both from Spain.
All three were angry at what they saw as
chronic mismanagement of the home country economy by their nation’s leaders.
With nation adhering to austerity policies prescribed by its international creditors and Germany, conditions had deteriorated so badly that they saw no light at the end of the tunnel.
“Recently, I heard criticism that people like us are running away,” Ms. Abadía said.
“We didn’t run away. We left because the economic situation and the politicians pushed us.”
“If they don’t fix things, they are going to lose a couple generations of smart, young people,” Ms. Abadía added as her friends nodded in agreement. “And then what will happen to the country that’s left behind?”
That question is weighing on European leaders. An estimated 100,000 university graduates have left Spain, and hundreds of thousands more from Europe’s crisis-hit countries have gone to Germany, Britain, and the Nordic states for jobs in engineering, science and medicine. Many others have gone farther afield to Australia, Canada and the United States.
The current migration “is mostly the skilled part of the population,” said Massimiliano Mascherini, a research manager at Eurofound, a European Union research agency. “It is alarming for the countries that young people are leaving, and it should be a big source of concern for their governments.”
As part of the employment-promotion program discussed Tuesday, European Union leaders promised to guarantee job offers and internships to jobless young people, and to bolster growth in innovation and research. They also pledged initiatives to help young people find work outside their countries with cross-border vocational training.
But those pledges may be hard to carry out, economists say. “They have raised expectations, but they need to deliver,” Mr. Scarpetta of the O.E.C.D. said. “It is a challenge for Europe in terms of credibility.”
A Cycle of Sporadic Work
In Madrid, Ms. Méndez said she had little faith in promises from government leaders. She moved here six years ago and graduated in the summer with her master’s in sociology. “I wasn’t expecting a great lifestyle, but I hoped to get a good job, where I could help society,” Ms. Méndez, a quiet, determined woman, said one morning in the apartment where a friend was letting her stay.
But when she graduated, Spain was deep into its economic slump, and the government had cut funding for the type of social services that she had hoped would make her degree useful.
Like thousands of young people hit by the crisis, Ms. Méndez soon found herself underemployed, grappling with a revolving door of temporary contracts that came with few benefits, lower pay than permanent jobs, and the risk of being laid off with little recourse.
For many young people in Europe, especially those living in the most embattled economies, it has become a way of life: a series of so-called junk contracts for low- or no-pay work that often verges on exploitation, with long gaps of joblessness in between.
Young people caught in that cycle are at the edge of a growing category that economists call NEETs: those who are not in employment, education or training. According to Eurofound, as many as 14 million young Europeans are out of work and disengaged, costing European Union member states an estimated €153 billion (about $206 billion) a year in welfare benefits and lost production.
Ms. Méndez faced that kind of unsettling risk as she sought to secure any paying job. She went to a sandwich chain but wound up working a two-week tryout with no salary. A luxury Spanish hotel chain expected her to do unpaid training for two months, and then work another two-month trial period without pay or a guarantee of a permanent job.
Occasionally it was overwhelming. “Sometimes,” she whispered, “it feels as if life is not really worth it.”
Her inability to forge a career worried Ms. Méndez, who could not even begin to think of making a home or a family. To gain experience, she was making plans to form a cooperative to study social issues like gender equality and sell reports to public institutions. She also volunteered to help abused women and attended meetings of the grass-roots movement Youth Without a Future to assist other young people exploited in temporary jobs.
When she went to her job interview with the supermarket chain, at the company headquarters on the outskirts of Madrid, she was ushered into a room with 30 other applicants, most of them with high-level university degrees. After an hour of being interviewed with the group, she exited and sighed.
Not getting the job would mean “losing my independence and the whole life that I’ve tried to build for myself over six years,” she said.
A few weeks later she received word: She would be hired to stock grocery shelves and run a cash register, but only on a three-month contract with variable hours and no guarantee of renewal.
The monthly salary of €800 (about $1,080) would allow her to buy basics and avoid returning to live with her parents, but not cover much else.
“It’s not like my situation has improved greatly,” Ms. Méndez said. “I still hope to work as a sociologist. I know that as the days go by, this work will start to get me down.”
It remains hard to have an envision of a brighter future.
“But I have to be strong, It’s the only thing I can do.”
In Amsterdam, Ms. Abadía has been surviving her economic exile by telling herself the same thing.
She rolled up her sleeve and revealed a single word in blue cursive that she had tattooed on her forearm last year: “valiente,” the Spanish term for brave.
“I did this to remember that I must keep dancing until the end,” Ms. Abadía said.