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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.

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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.

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In some 40 in-depth interviews with under-30 youth in Spain, Greece, Britain, and France, the single point of agreement was the youths' distrust of leaders. This is Europe's first generation since World War II to have fewer prospects than their parents, and for now, they blame the politicians. The most common word they used to describe their lives: complicated.

Yes, they want jobs. Of course. An emblematic banner of Spanish youth on Puerta del Sol read loudly to under-30s across Europe: "Without jobs, without housing, without a future, without fear."

One Spanish protest included a "physicists without jobs" group. Guillermo Ubieto, age 27, graduated with an advanced degree in international relations. "But there was no work. It's the problem of Spain," Mr. Ubieto says. "We are the best-educated generation in Spanish history, bar none. They told us study, push yourselves, you can have a good future. We haven't earned anything. We can't get a job.... Now we are saying something."

Yet the Puerta del Sol protest was about a lot more than jobs. Something more fundamental was at work. It was time to stop accepting the verdict of a diminished life. But the issues being raised seem bigger than any solutions. As the indignados see it, their extremity has forced questions about what it means to be human; what values and truths to accept; how people should be treated; how democracy should work; the role of free markets, money, the social contract, community.

"We are here to claim dignity ... [and] a new society that gives more priority to life than economic interest," states their informational flier.

It's pretty utopian. And whether the indignados can survive (they still fill the square on Sunday evenings) is unclear. But their pluck brought public sympathy in Spain and Greece, and they are seen as a bellwether among analysts: Europe and its nations have a debt crisis that is testing its unity and economics. But the youth protests point to an equally important crisis – of meaning, and of what kind of spirit the age will usher in.

"People came together around feelings and diagnoses that were very abstract but also very powerful," says Arturo Debonis, who recently attended an indignados seminar by US Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz on globalization and capitalism.

"When I saw the images from Puerta del Sol, the skin on my arms jumped off," adds Gaelle Simon, 29, an earnest, young Frenchwoman who moved home after losing her factory job and apartment in Switzerland. "I had been depressed. But after Tunisia and Egypt, I could see what the Spanish kids were doing. Something's not working in our system, but we don't need to accept it."

It wasn't supposed to be like this. Young Europeans for decades have identified with a historic joining of the Continent. They identified strongly with postwar visions: a high-minded model of civil society, ideals of justice, a robust monetary union, and a confident zone of business dealings and corporations that set global management standards.

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