The Broken Hopes of a Spanish Generation

The Broken Hopes of a Spanish Generation

Not long ago, Lorena Dominguez looked forward to the future. She had a well-paid job at the Citroën automobile factory in Vigo, the town in northern Spain where she had grown up. She had recently moved in with her boyfriend Oscar, and had put her own apartment on the market. The two spent their weekends hanging out with friends in Vigo’s lively waterfront cafés and were planning to travel this summer. It wasn’t a bad life for the 23-year-old daughter of a longshoreman and a housewife.

Then came la crisis. Domínguez first began to feel the effects of the recession when she was unable to sell her apartment, despite lowering the price several times. That failure cramped her plans for the future a bit — last year she and Oscar decided to spend their summer vacation closer to home — but it wasn’t until December that she felt its full fury. Right before Christmas, Citroën let go 3,000 workers — 90% of them below the age of 35 — and Domínguez was one of them. Since then, she’s had to rely on her parents to make her mortgage. “I always thought I would do better than my parents,” she says. “But now that seems like an impossible dream.”
Call it Generation Disappointment. As the recession tightens across Europe, the young are hurting disproportionately. Nowhere is that more obvious than in Spain where unemployment in the general population runs to more than 17% and one in three people younger than 25 is out of work. Many have no frame of reference for what is happening; they grew up with two decades of strong economic growth and the optimistic assumption that they would be better off than their parents, just as their parents did better than the generation before them. The realization that Nikes, Wiis and cell phones are not their birthright comes as a hard lesson. With credit tight, young Spaniards are finding it virtually impossible to buy their own homes. Many have been forced to move back in with their parents or put off plans to move out. “A whole generation is having its ambitions thwarted,” says Daniel Lostao, president of the Youth Council of Spain.
Until recently, Spain was one of the European Union’s great success stories. In 1992, Spain’s per capita GDP was 70% of the E.U. average; by 2006 it was 90% of that of the 15 pre-2004 members. Growth helped cut unemployment, which had hovered near 20% for decades, to 8.3% in 2007, and drew hundreds of thousands of immigrants to a country that had, in the ’50s and ’60s, sent its own desperate citizens abroad.
As the hardships of the Franco dictatorship receded, new generations born under democracy embraced rising expectations, both material and professional. “That was the major social change of the transition,” says Cristina Bermejo, director of youth issues for the Workers’ Commission, Spain’s largest union. “Illiteracy had been a big problem in Spain since the civil war. But in the ’70s and ’80s, there was a reaction against it. Suddenly everyone, even factory workers, expected their kids to go to university and do better than they had.”

To get an idea of the changes that occurred in Spain, it’s worth taking a look at Vigo, a city of 300,000 in the northwestern region of Galicia. Unlike other Spanish cities with their booming tourism and service industries, Vigo is proudly working class. But even here, on the docks and in the factories, the past few decades have brought unprecedented prosperity.

The Citroën factory opened in Vigo in 1958; by 2007, it was manufacturing 547,000 cars a year and had become the company’s highest-producing plant in Europe. It was also the largest company in the region of Galicia, directly employing more than 10,000 locals. Those steady, well-paid jobs helped transform what was once a rough-and-tumble port into a pleasant seaside city, complete with manicured boulevards, a contemporary-art museum and plenty of Zara outlets. By 1990, there were enough ambitious young people in Vigo to support a university.

The influx of kids — and of their parents’ disposable incomes — helped foster new businesses. In 2005, Ramón González opened what would be the third tattoo parlor on the then bustling Pi y Maragall Avenue. Business boomed. Students, “Citroën workers and the kids of Citroën workers kept me busy,” he says.

Spending Cuts
Then came Spain’s property crash and the financial turmoil in the U.S., which tipped the world into recession. On a recent Friday, González’s studio was empty. There is at least one boarded-up storefront on every block of the street where it is located. Cafés, children’s boutiques, legal offices, furniture stores, language schools — the recession has closed them all. “I’m getting by on piercings,” says González with a shrug. “They’re a lot cheaper, so the kids can still get enough money to pay for them. But who knows how long that will last.”

Patricia Portela is one of those people who, not too long ago, might have splashed out on a discreet tattoo. On a warm March afternoon, the 20-year-old met some friends in Vigo’s waterfront promenade. Portela works in a local clothing store and hopes to be a designer some day; her three friends are in college. Their shiny hair and fashionable clothes betray their prosperous, middle-class background, but even these women are feeling the pinch. Asked how the financial crisis is affecting them, they enumerate a long list: the clothing they can no longer buy, the vacations they can no longer take. “Before, you would just go shopping on a whim,” says Portela. “Now my parents don’t let me.”

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