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.

Andrea Comas/Reuters
Demonstrators protest against collective bargaining reforms in front of Spain's labour ministry in Madrid in June.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

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.

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.

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.

Author Jeremy Rifkin in 2004 saw Europe as the path to the future. Young Europeans in college seminars spoke about being European, not Dutch, or French, or Spanish. A single Europe, as was said after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, "just makes sense."

Even in 2002, notes Paris intellectual Dominique Moisi, there was a "quasi-religious feeling" among students about creating solidarity with Czechs, Slovaks, Poles. Europe seemed a dazzling model of social cohesion – wealthy, sustainable, green, and mostly postnational. The ghosts of Auschwitz were fading. "Never again!" still echoed prominently in the streets when Germany reunified.

Democratic values were ascendant, borders were falling, and old animosities were evaporating. Indeed, Europe was a cause, and with its enlightened youth, was preparing to lead the way.

The Bosnian war was an early reality check on how prepared Europe was to sacrifice in the name of its values. But the 1999 Kosovo intervention to halt ethnic cleansing and nationalism on Europe's doorstep, and a commitment by Brussels to keep the peace and integrate the Balkans (with the United States), helped restore the narrative. A war crimes tribunal at The Hague, the first since Nuremberg, prosecuted hundreds of officers and soldiers from those wars.

Yet the European dream is suddenly in question. Under-30s have more doubt than optimism. It is the first generation since the 1950s that feels few thrills about a Europe project. The 17-nation eurozone is debt-ridden. Ugly splits are manifest between northern- and southern-tier states. The cohesion brought by a Franco-German relationship bent on keeping Europe whole and vibrant has frayed or become exhausted.

"For a long time, I believed in Europe. I thought it was magnificent," says Olivier, 27, who studied philosophy but now works for France's National Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies. "It was brilliant, especially in terms of its historical configuration. But today I am not satisfied.... I would love a strong Europe that speaks with one voice," but Europe is increasingly directed by Germany, says Olivier, who, like some of the others interviewed, would give only his first name.

The Germans built a competitive export economy and don't want to pay for what they see as the irresponsible fiscal policies of southern "siesta economies." Greece (twice), Ireland, and Portugal have needed bailouts, and it isn't over. Spain and Italy are not out of the red-ink woods. Youth riots in London this summer may have been a singular, compulsive event, but they hold a warning.

Europe's political elites are under attack from radical right populist parties that target Muslims and immigrants; mainstream politics accommodates views seen as extreme a few years ago. "Inward looking" is a popular phrase for Europe-watchers. New global powers like Brazil and China aren't necessarily taken with European models of international conduct. The broad vision of Europe's postwar leaders seems in short supply.

"We need a Franklin Roosevelt and what we've got are a bunch of Herbert Hoovers," says Karim Emile Bitar, at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris.

* * *

Anciently in Madrid, Puerta del Sol is where all roads led out to Europe. The square is framed by a pinkish town hall and the kind of 19th-century three-star hotels that guidebooks describe as having "character." Tourists and sun are plentiful. But until May 15, it was not a place of political symbolism, not a Tiananmen Square of Spain. That changed as Puerta del Sol, or "Sun's Gate," became a Tahrir Square for Spanish youth, who flew the Egyptian flag in solidarity with the Arab Spring.

Today their numbers and energy are still strong, though their focus is more diffuse. On Sept. 18, some 5,000 marched, wave after wave – families, pregnant women, students, couples with baby strollers, and seniors. They shook their hands above their heads before entering the square, shouting, "It's not democracy," or "You don't represent us."

"You don't stage a revolution with the argument that things are complicated, and we need time to discuss it," says José Ignacio Torreblanca of the Madrid office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. "But they see the political class as closed, opaque, corrupt, insensitive. All polls show a wide feeling among youth that the political class and elites are a problem."

Spanish youth, like those in other parts of the Continent, are divided over "Europe." Many don't see Brussels as a shining ideal but as an accounting house. Yet what's mostly complicated are their personal lives: In an age of austerity, college grads face short-term contracts and unpaid internships – busy work that often doesn't train them.

In France, they are the "700 generation" – earning €700 a month (US$965). Affordable housing is in short supply, rents are expensive, and for many, getting a home loan seems as likely as changing the rings of Saturn. Without a work contract, it is often hard to sign a lease. Moving from flat to flat takes a toll, and living at home puts a strain on families.

Nadera is a young French Arab, 28. With black hair pulled back and fine features, she has a slightly glamorous look that belies her status as a member of the 700 generation who works seasonal jobs for cash. She's staying on the couch of friends in Paris. She comes from a family of nine. She left home at 14 and has held numerous jobs. One was caring for the handicapped, and she would like to one day own a home-care business; helping others is an ideal of hers. But she doesn't know what to do next, and struggles with a sense of "belonging." "I don't feel European or French, and when I go to Morocco, I don't feel Moroccan," she says. "What's my place and what is Europe's place in the world?"

Little things cost a lot for this generation: phones, train tickets, food. Twenty-five-year-olds compete with 40-year-olds for work. As Europe ages and budgets tighten, older generations want to keep their jobs. Politicians concoct "programs" to help youth, but they give concrete benefits to older generations who vote – bus passes, optical help, winter fuel, pension breaks. The young are, well, young, and considered more adaptable.

* * *

Globally, only Southeast Asia has low youth unemployment. In Europe, figures show a rise in joblessness since the 2008 fiscal crisis began. In 2007, the overall jobless rate among youth was 14.4 percent, according to Eurostat, the statistical arm of the European Commission. But by 2010, it had risen to more than 20 percent. In Europe's southern tier it is higher. Spain's jobless rate rose from 18 percent to 41.6 percent among 18-to-24-year-olds. Only Germany saw a decline.

What's different in the US and Europe, from emerging economies, is a sharp lowering of expectations enjoyed by previous generations. Wendy Cunningham of the World Bank in Washington says the old social contract that college equals a job is fast disappearing. The days of "I have a degree in medieval studies, I deserve a job" are over, she says.

Whether the disillusionment will manifest itself in something more unruly is uncertain. Down the road, some do see trouble. In an off-the-record briefing, a senior analyst at Morgan Stanley told an under-35 audience that a generational clash in Europe – more pensioners and fewer youth to support them – is a "top" long-term worry at the firm.

In the May 2010 elections in Britain, Liberal Democrats captured student hearts with promises that university tuitions would not rise. The youth turned out. For many, it was the first time they had ever voted. But by December, the ruling coalition of Tory and Lib Dems raised tuition from £3,000 to £9,000 (US$4,700 to $14,000) a year. The shock ignited a massive student march through central London. Young protesters bused in from all parts of the country to demonstrate.

"Nations that have groomed a generation through a vast expense of higher education risk trouble if they can't deliver jobs and careers to that generation," something that dates back all the way to the French Revolution, says Jack Goldstone, professor of public policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., who recently visited Athens and Cairo.

Yet unlike in the US in the 1980s, when edgy Generation Xers often blamed their granola-eating parents for their travails, Europe's youth don't fault their parents for their plight. Most see them as sympathetic and sacrificing. They point out that their parents are bewildered to find their offspring living at home at age 30 with a master's degree. (Studies show that 46 percent of Europeans under 34 live with at least one parent.)

In some ways, the proliferation of social media networks (Facebook, Twitter), YouTube, and blogs makes things more "complicated," simply because it opens so many windows on the world. Europe's cybergeneration is less trusting of traditional media. "We want the truth. I don't want to believe, I want to know," says John, a 26-year-old in Athens. "I like facts. I like proof. I'm a computer scientist. I am always online. When it comes to Greek politics and the debt crisis, I draw my own conclusions."

"We used to accept the authority of mainstream media, but we no longer do," adds Concepción Cortés Zulueta, who heads a young researchers association at a Madrid university. "Now I say look at this link, and this link, at this website, or this video. There is a lot more information, and a lot more to challenge."

One thing youth resent is when elders caricature their generation. Early in the May 15 movement, with police surrounding the square, media dubbed the youth as "Ni-Nis" (neither this nor that), which in this context meant neither workers nor students. It was a derogatory slap. The protesters, highly educated but often unemployed, shot back that, yes, they were Ni-Nis – they supported neither center-left Socialists, nor the center-right Popular Party, something akin in the US to a pox on both Democratic and Republican houses.

Later, after slurs that indignados were "lazy drinkers," the youths themselves banned alcohol on the square. Puerta del Sol was for years the site of an evening ritual called botellón, in which bottles of beer were passed around liberally as the sun went down. This ended. A banner atop a building stated: "Esto no es un botellón."

"We hear politicians describing a breakdown in youth responsibility, a moral collapse; we hear about feral children running wild, feckless youth. It is complete nonsense," says Ed Howker, coauthor of "Jilted Generation: How Britain Has Bankrupted Its Youth." "The description of the generation, not by their parents, but by politicians, and to some extent the mass media, is irresponsible and uninformed. We have TV shows called the 'Bank of Mom and Dad.' It's offensive," says Mr. Howker, who just turned 30. "All these different glib generalizations of youth bear no relation to the vulnerable situation they feel themselves in."

Not that youth are free from self-criticism. In Luton, a blue-collar city northwest of London, Michael Toms, 24, works the late shift at the train station. The last express to London is around midnight, and Mr. Toms walks the platform notifying stragglers of the timing. Luton is heavily ethnic, South Asian and Muslim, and proudly so, but it is also a home of the far right youth gang, the English Defense League. (Anders Behring Breivik, the man accused of mass murder in Norway in July, visited and approved of the EDL.)

Toms says that EDL members often kick up a fuss at the Luton station after football matches. But as he talks about his generation, and England, it isn't the brawling EDL kids but the general attitude of his peers that concerns Toms. "Too many of my friends don't work, have never worked, and don't know the value of work," he says. "They are into football and video games. They think about tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. They don't want to make decisions until they have to."

Toms, who says he is probably "too organized for my age," adds, "I think the internal drive to make something of yourself is disappearing in Britain.... We can't be great again. That's how people feel."

Alberto, a 24-year-old from Spain, doesn't like hearing excuses from his peers, either. Tall and burly, he wears a monogrammed oxford shirt and is about to start an internship with Price Waterhouse in Madrid. He stands in line outside the business school he graduated from, points inside to the office staff, and says that to get ahead one must avoid bureaucracy. "The people are lazy. That's the most basic problem.... The private sector is going to save Spain. It depends on us, no one else."

Alberto Canfran, 25, a biologist in Madrid who has a grant to work in the US, agrees with the indignados can-do spirit but faults his cohorts more broadly. "Other generations were living in good times, and we expected to take a ride on that," he says. "We saw bad times coming and did nothing. Our future is in our hands. You have to fight for it, just as our parents fought for their future" in emerging from the Franco regime that ended in 1983.

Yet parents don't completely escape criticism. "The older generations have not passed us a dream or hope," says Adrien, 24, a graduate student of energy and climate from Versailles, France. "I'm tired of baby boomers who don't understand anything anymore and who are frightened. Our political classes don't understand ecology; they don't think about the future."

But to paraphrase The Who, many of the kids are "all right" – they work, engage in clubs and sports. They have families, meet with friends, watch a lot of film, live on the Internet, get along. An international Roman Catholic youth meeting in Madrid this summer drew more than a million participants. And not all young people reject the notion of a unified Continent. Polls show that Eastern European youth identify strongly with the idea of "Europe."

But there is also a lot of experimenting with ideas from the East, alternative medicine, art therapy. One young basketball trainer in Madrid is part of a "slow movement" – to eat, speak, move, and live more deliberately. Many youth say an impending global catastrophe, whether economic or ecological, is not far off. There is a lot of "collapse talk."

In the long term, the most salient issue may be a mass distrust of leaders and the "system." And the malaise doesn't just surface among fresh-faced 18-year-olds; people in their 30s vent about it, too.

"We are apolitical because we think nothing can be done. We don't trust politicians. I don't blame or feel angry," says Laura Sanchez-Vizcaíno Flys, a young award-winning cinematographer in Madrid who has become interested in acupuncture. "We just don't trust. We see how ... power corrupts, and our leaders all end up the same way, chasing money. My generation was raised to work hard, but there's a crisis of values and of what life means."

Europe's youth definitely drift leftward politically. A slightly anarchic spirit exists among many of them, and some political scientists see a shift toward a proliferation of small left parties, like the Pirate Party that recently captured many votes in local elections in Berlin. But not all youth fish from the port side.

Thierry Rassfestin, 21, joined the youth wing of the center-right French ruling party but was turned off, and moved further right. "There was nothing ... only gatherings to eat pizza and watch videos of [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy from time to time." He then joined the far-right National Front, now led by Marine Le Pen, daughter of party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen. "Our leaders represent a huge incoherence," he says. "They don't know the definitions of the words they use. They don't understand the meaning of 'republic' or 'country' or 'nation-state.' "

Mr. Rassfestin, as an openly gay male, represents a change in the composition of the French far right. "We should concentrate locally, with town halls," he says. "We mustn't continue to blindly believe what we are told by politicians.... We must hand back the power to the people; give them the sovereignty."

* * *

Europe's dreams may have lost their shine. And the coming generation is the first in 60 years to harbor lower expectations than their parents' generation. But in recent months, with its young in mind, some of Europe's eldest statesmen are coming out of retirement, riding in on white horses to offer hope and vision.

These are no strangers to European complexities. Helmut Kohl, president of the German republic during reunification, recently chided his country for losing its ardor for Europe, for losing its "dependability" in the face of a debt crisis that could unhinge what he and others achieved. There's a "frightening lack of courage," he said in an oblique reference to current Chancellor Angela Merkel. "The great transformations in the world of today are no excuse for the lack of vision ... and the direction we want to take."

Then there is Jacques Delors, a main architect of the modern European Union. Since July, he has been giving interviews stating that Europe's founding values are being "destroyed ... day by day." Mr. Delors in the 1980s reconciled the left in France with a free market economy to integrate Europe, and was president of the European commission. He says the spirit of Europe is of a family, a community reliant on "mutual support," not an impersonal, cold "union," a term he dislikes.

Finally comes Stéphane Hessel. The 93-year-old French resistance hero is also the last living author of the UN Declaration on Human Rights. Mr. Hessel was living quietly in Paris, reading the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and tending his garden. But the climate of antipathy and corruption he felt in France – and the abandonment of ideals he believed were prevalent in the 1990s through UN summits on women, climate, and social development – outraged him. He penned a booklet called "Get Indignant" – from which the youth in Puerta del Sol took their name – that became a No. 1 bestseller. His main message for Europe's youth is not to accept that idealism is dead.

"I tell youngsters," he says, "search.... The worst of attitudes is indifference or to think, 'I can do nothing about it; I manage.' By behaving in this way, you lose one of the essential components that makes you human."

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