Without jobs, Iberia's youth organize – and reassess what they want

Part 6 of Who is 'Europe'?, a weekly series on how European natives and residents are responding to pressures from terrorism, migration, nationalism, and the 'European project.'

Andrea Comas/Reuters
People enter a government-run job center in Madrid in April.

Duarte Machado is making close to 750 euros ($840) a month – about $10,000 annually – at a lobbying firm in Lisbon. But despite the low pay, he considers himself fortunate.

“I used to think that the best and brightest would always find a way, and that's not true,” he says. Mr. Machado found his current job only after a series of unpaid or barely paid internships, as well as a full year of unemployment. And without a contract, he has little hope he’ll have his post past the end of this year.

“I was a good student, I have a master's degree, I was involved with the student's council, I worked as a volunteer in poorer neighborhoods, I have letters of recommendation from important people in this area – former employers – and it still didn't work.”

He says he considers himself lucky given how many friends he knows are working for free. Then he corrects himself. “We’re so used to this, we don’t even know anymore.”

Mr. Machado is part of the new class of restive young workers that is causing upheaval in domestic politics across Europe. While in other parts of Europe, like Slovakia, frustration has been channeled to the far right, in Portugal and Spain it has bolstered the left. There, in response to the surge in youth unemployment caused by the financial crisis and austerity, activists are fighting against becoming a “lost generation” by advocating for dignified jobs, even as they are forced to recalibrate expectations about what a European lifestyle is supposed to look like.

“I have made peace with the fact that I won’t have my parent’s lifestyle - I’ll never be upper middle class. They worry, they tell me to try to find a job as a college teacher, but they have no idea how underpaid those jobs are these days,” he says.

Broad unemployment

Youth frustration in Southern Europe was the first to appear, as those countries were hit hardest by austerity measures put in place to cope with the debt crisis. One of the most visible signs was the Indignado movement of Spain. The group, whose leaders later formed the left-wing party Podemos (which garnered one-fifth of youth votes in December’s election) has helped upend the two-party system in Spain.

Now that the economy has stabilized but employment opportunities haven’t improved, many of those activists have turned to battling to improve conditions for workers across the region.

In Spain, 45 percent of young people are unemployed. In Portugal, youth unemployment is above 30 percent. And the majority of those working are either limited to internships that almost never turn into full-time jobs, stuck in term contracts, or have no contracts at all.

One third of all term contracts for Spaniards under age 25 last a week or less, while Portugal’s state-sponsored internship program has led to chronic instability, activists say. Only 33 percent of Portuguese interns transition into a full-time jobs afterwards.

Activists in both countries are trying to improve those rates and the quality and quantity of jobs available to youth. João Camargo, a PhD student, runs Precários Inflexíveis, which gives out free legal advice for youths in precarious job situations, raises awareness, and calls for more legislative protections for workers. The group's efforts include protests and name-and-shame campaigns against those taking advantage of the system. Similarly, Oficina Precaria in Spain mobilizes over social media and has confronted shop owners for underpaying young workers.

In Portugal, the ruling Socialists and their left-wing party allies have declared that they will adopt policies put forward by Precários Inflexíveis, including increased governmental scrutiny of employers and restrictions on internships and term contracts.

And while budgets remain tight and jobs rare, Iberian youth are adapting to a more low-cost lifestyle. “Since all our friends live with low wages and a great degree of uncertainty, we help each other in a very informal way,” Mr. Camargo says. “There’s that guy in the group that excels at finding bargains and shares that information with everyone else; there’s the guy who signed up for the cheaper family phone plan and shares it among the group. We share baby clothes and products.”

Reassessing realities

Despite their efforts, young underpaid workers struggle to make ends meet and have had to reshape their expectations for the future. In Spain, that reorientation is clear in the term mileurista, or a person who earns about a thousand euros per month. For years, mileurista encapsulated a generation’s fears that they’d never be as well-off as – and always be dependent on – their parents.

Today, the fear remains, but the salary mark has changed, says Pachi Ochoa, a 34-year-old community organizer who just got his first job earning over 1,000 euros, at a May Day parade in Madrid.

“Ten years ago a mileurista was a nobody. Now 1,000 euros is … a miracle,” he says. His good fortune might end soon, after his job ends in December. “Then I’ll probably be back at my parents' house,” says Mr. Ochoa, who has two master’s degrees.

Marta Romero de la Cruz, deputy general of the think tank Alternativas in Madrid, thinks parents have a harder time adjusting than their children.

“Young people never experienced those times of prosperity, and so they adapt to what’s happening right now,” she says. “Parents worry their kids won’t live like they lived, but the kids aren’t as worried because this is what they know.”

Renato Carmo, a sociologist at Observatory of Inequalities in Lisbon, says that companies have the upper hand because young workers are so desperate. “The challenges are so many and so different from one situation to the other that it’s difficult to envision a class of precarious workers uniting like the working class,” he says.

Yet from interviews he does with many of these young people, he says they are highly trained, well traveled, and could mobilize the rest of the population. “The great majority of them refuses the idea that a college education is worthless.”

In Lisbon, Camargo says his parents have tried to persuade him to leave the country as hundreds of thousands of young Portuguese have done in the last four years. “I refuse to leave,” he says. “There’s a fight to be fought here.”

This was part 6 of Who is 'Europe'?, a weekly series on how European natives and residents are responding to pressures from terrorism, migration, nationalism, and the 'European project.' See all of the stories on the series homepage.

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