Occupy Europe: How a generation went from indifferent to indignant
Occupy Europe? From Madrid to Athens, young people facing a bleak future are casting doubt on European identity.
The most significant current youth movement in Europe started with a tweet on Justin Bieber, the boyish Canadian crooner. On May 15, following a rally against education cuts at Madrid's main square, a cluster of 40 students stayed on, talking into the night. Spain, like Greece and Italy, faces huge public deficits. The government has been cutting outlays for basic services like schools, health care, and social welfare. While college attendance in Spain is a success story, youth unemployment has risen to a horrific 44 percent.Skip to next paragraph
So on Puerta del Sol square, the kids were hashing it out. They wanted to bed down on the square, but the police had other ideas. About 4 a.m., the police pushed the makeshift campers off. A month before, students had slept there to buy tickets to a Bieber concert. No one is sure who sent the first "Bieber tweet," but it went instantly viral: "We can sleep on the square for Bieber tickets, but not to discuss our future."
The tweet distilled perfectly frustrations among youth that Europe, Spain, their politicians, the banks, the system, their lives – all are in trouble and need to change. The Zapatero government, like governments across Europe, hews to a neoliberal model that stresses cutting deficits and using taxes to shore up banks. But it has said little about how to spur growth. Austerity is seen as the predominant answer to spiraling debt costs. But this offers no solace to an educated but unemployed generation that says it wants both work and meaning in life.
Yet some Rubicon was crossed on May 15. A Twitter call brought hundreds of youth to the square. The next day more than 1,000 came. By the end of the week 30,000 people, most of them young, had organized a system of tent camps, started seminars and teach-ins, and begun building a social networking site. "Yes, we camp," they coyly said. Their moniker became indignados, or the outraged.
Today, their idea has spread across southern Europe to Rome and Athens and the far corners of Spanish cyberspace, where the group has 70,000 participants. They are part of an increasingly global movement of young people that, while not directly connected, share some of the same frustrations over the inability of economies to create jobs, and the indifference of politicians or their impotence to do anything about it.
The youth of Puerta del Sol have taken some of their inspiration from the youth of the Arab Spring. Both groups have directly inspired young members of the "Occupy Wall Street" protests in America. Indeed, from Latin America to the Middle East to China, the issue of jobless youth has become a worrisome global trend – what one British minister calls a "ticking time bomb."
Yet each of these revolts is also rooted in its own grievances, with consequences that will be similarly singular. Few are more important than the growing restiveness of Europe's young masses, both because of the size and breadth of the protests and because they come at a time when Europe's finances – and collective identity – is increasingly fragile.