A lesson for Europe in Spain’s startling election

The Dec. 20 election shook up Spanish politics with a youthful vote for two new parties. With nearly half of young people unemployed, a new government must show the rest of Europe how to reduce a fear of economic innovation.

At a Dec. 14 luncheon with entrepreneurs in Madrid, Ciudadanos party leader Albert Rivera reacts alongside former Spanish Minister for Science and Innovation Cristina Garmendia (L) and Ciudadanos' economic advisor Luis Garicano (R).

A new global survey by a German university finds Europe to be the worst place in the world for young people to become entrepreneurs. Their main obstacle? Nearly 70 percent of Europeans harbor a fear of failure in forming a start-up. This fear may help explain the results of a Dec. 20 election in Spain, where nearly half of youth adults remain jobless seven years after Europe’s financial crisis.

Young Spaniards turned out like the running of the bulls to vote in this election. They went against the two establishment parties, the Socialists and center-right People’s Party. And they gave a strong boost to two newcomers, the far-left Podemos (We Can) and pro-market Ciudadanos (Citizens). Those youth-minded parties offer very alternative but hopeful futures to the next generation.

Not only did the election shake up traditional politics in Europe’s fifth-largest economy, it also represents a larger desire on the Continent to resolve what German leader Angela Merkel calls one of Europe’s most pressing problems: high youth unemployment.

It may take weeks for Spanish politicians to negotiate a deal on which party will lead a new government. But whichever party rules in Madrid, it must find new ways to help the so-called “lost generation” of jobless young people.

In 2008, 15.2 percent of Europeans ages 15-24 were out of work. Today, the figure seems stuck at 23 percent, and has even risen lately despite a recovery in European economies. Youth unemployment remains highest in southern countries such as Spain and Greece.

The solutions are many but European officials point to a common fear of the young about the risks of being innovative. The world of work is “radically changing,” says Marianne Thyssen, the European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility. She says the guiding principle is flexibility, which often means moving to where the jobs are and in retraining for new skills.

Indeed, 23 percent of Europeans ages 18-24 are contemplating a move to another country, according to Intrum Justitia, Europe’s biggest debt collector. And since 2012, the European Union has poured billions into various programs to train young people in entrepreneurial and technical skills, or in support of apprenticeships.

Europe has about 2 million unfilled job vacancies, mainly in high-tech fields, so there is no lack of jobs. And as innovation centers for start-up firms are popping up in many countries. Europe has a new climate for entrepreneurship to help break that fear of failure.

Spain has a rich tradition of dynamic entrepreneurism, and many of its young people are well-educated. But the survival rate of new companies is one of the lowest in Europe. Other European countries have become models in reversing an economic problem. Perhaps with this election Spain can show how to give courage and hope to young people in joining the global innovation economy.

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