Writer / Journalist / Teacher

Heartbreak in Catalonia: Joblessness erodes confidence of Spanish youth

Evening in Barcelona's Placa Reial, home to nightclubs, restaurants acrobats and idlers of all description.  Captions for photos just below are at end of page.

There are few signs of an economic crisis among the diners, idlers and vacationers strewn about the Placa Reial in Barcelona's ancient and wonderful Gothic District, a powerful futball kick or two from La Rambla, the famed and crowded commercial center of this city.

Here, the cava is cold and copious, and the Spanish jamon is buttery. Nightclubs are full, and the wait for the flamenco dancers long.

But while the city itself remains clean, crowded and even relaxed, many of the people who live here are staring straight into the teeth of a kind of economic hopelessness that few places in the developed world have had to come to grips with since the 1930s.

Nearly 30 percent of working age Spaniards are unemployed -- four times the rate in the still-recovering United States, and full three-and-a-half times its own rate in 2008, when unemployment stood at 7.5 percent.

Among youth, the figure is much higher. The percentage of young people under 25 who are not studying but aren't working, either, is pushing 60 percent in Spain. Only Greece, teetering on the brink of total ruin, paints such a dismal picture.

What does it mean for a city as ancient and beloved as Barcelona to be home to so many young people for whom the prospect of an independent life and any kind of ambition for personal success has simply disappeared? That's the question I've come to Barcelona to answer.

I am just wrapping up a year at Stanford where I was a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow. This project, an online magazine about cities designed to decode urban affairs through the use of powerful, long-form journalism, is part of that year's work. Put more simply: It will be a journal operating under the premise that the best way to understand cities is to tell their stories.

It will begin its life as a blog, and I hope you help me gather an audience of readers willing to engage with urban issues and who are happy to do it through reading magazine style stories.

Barcelona is a great story to tell, and it has been told movingly for generations. From George Orwell's homage to the city during the Spanish Civil War to Robert Hughes' large and wonderful book from 1993, there is no shortage of writing about Catalonia or its capital.

But it was the plight of the youth here in Spain that brought me across the ocean. The situation here has every marking, as Matthew O'Brien of The Atlantic has written, of the makings of a permanent underclass. The fastest growing group of people without jobs is the ones who have been out of work for two years or more. This is the kind of situation that does more than mark families; it warps whole generations.

I'll be reporting for the next week or more, and my own views of what's happening will shift as my wisdom about Spain and Barcelona deepens. In other words: These posts on this blog will be a record of my own comprehension, and surely a monument to mistakes and misconceptions as well.

But rather than keep all these impressions in my notebooks, I thought I'd bring those of you who care to join along for the ride as I explore the city and its people's prospects. Feedback, suggestions and sources -- all are welcome. You can reach me at lindenbe@stanford.edu.

Everywhere I've been so far, I hear the same story so far: Living in Barcelona will break your heart. It's so beautiful, so perfect in so many ways, but as the jobs crisis continues without hopes for relief, the prospects for staying here are slim.

Young people who got out of university in the middle of the last decade found work and moved out on their own, throwing themselves in the Barcelona lifestyle that seemed so ready made for their happiness. But one by one, the jobs went away and those same people, now nearing or passing 30, have opted to stay -- but at the cost of their independence.

Gone are the solo apartments and here instead are roommates living together in groups of four or five to make their rent. It's like young people who move to Manhattan, willing to put up with nearly anything to win a toehold in the metropolis. Except here, the young people have turned 30, and unlike in New York City, it's not a matter of making $4,000 rent payments. The problem isn't on the outflow at all; it's the inflow -- and incomes are too low or simply nonexistent.

Many others, more recently out of school, see no hope of staying. "I love it here," says a student from Honduras. "This is my place in the world."

But with no job and no prospect for one, despite the new degree she's about to have, she's heading home. "It is very hard to find a job here," she said. Honduras, where the unemployment rate is below 5 percent, will be easier. Moving, though, is breaking her heart, she said.

It's not just foreign students who come to study and hope to stay who are leaving, either. Native Spaniards are fleeing, too, my taxi driver told me as we entered the city. "They are going to Brazil, or Germany. They want to work," he told me.

He has a five-year-old daughter and already, he said, he worries about her life in his city. "I hope things will change in a few years. They need to. Otherwise, it's just a black future. With nothing for anyone."

After a night of wandering the city Thursday, I found myself sitting in front of bartender Carlos Freisedo, at a much harder to find and altogether more satisfying watering hole than any of the livelier places in the Placa Reial. Freisedo is mulling whether to close for the night, but it seems a tad early. At his bar sit a journalist polishing off a drink before bed, and three recent university graduates on holiday from the UK.

He tells me I'll be one of his last customers. On Friday he is quitting his job. Born in southern Spain, he's been in Barcelona nearly a decade, and spent seven years working as an electrical engineer for a hospital equipment company. But as the economic crisis spread in the past two years, public hospitals ran out of money and stopped buying so much equipment. He lost his job, and now stands quietly behind a tiny bar relishing conversation but worrying over his future.

He's leaving Friday for a job back in the south, and he'll be working again in a field related to his studies. But he's sad, too. "Of course I'll miss Barcelona," he said. "Very, very much."

Earlier in the day, protestors waving a communist flag had rallied in Barcelona to shout about racism and other problems. Last month it had been firefighters fighting with police over budget cuts.

That's nothing new, of course. Hughes' history tells a story of rebelliousness in Barcelona that goes back centuries. More recently, in the 1930s, Barcelona had been the center of resistance to the rightwing fascist Franco. By the time Orwell had arrived it had appeared to him as a city entirely controlled by workers, unionists and anarchists. Here's how Orwell recalled it in Homage to Catalonia:

I had come to Spain with some notion of writing newspaper articles, but I had joined the militia almost immediately, because at that time and in that atmosphere it seemed the only conceivable thing to do. The Anarchists were still in virtual control of Catalonia and the revolution was still in full swing. To anyone who had been there since the beginning it probably seemed even in December or January that the revolutionary period was ending; but when one came straight from England the aspect of Barcelona was something startling and overwhelming. It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt. Churches here and there were being systematically demolished by gangs of workmen. Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivised; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said 'Senor' or 'Don' or even 'Usted'; everyone called everyone else 'Comrade' or 'Thou', and said 'Salud!' instead of 'Buenos dias'."<

That didn't last, of course. Infighting among the leftists, led by a right-leaning Communist party, helped give the win to Franco. He stayed in power for 36 years, until his death in 1975. Reprisals against the center of resistance were harsh.

These thoughts were flushed by talking with the English students at the bar. The journalist has bought a round of drinks to celebrate the recent matriculations among the English sojourners. One of the graduates, an art history major, confides: "We figured we'd had enough of sitting around and getting drunk in England, so we'd better come over here and do it."

Her friend, a politics graduate, adds: "All three of us are unemployed. And it's the same everywhere in England."

The difference, she adds, is that in England the divide between the rich and the poor is so stark that the wealthy keep on prospering, while the poor and middle class, including those lucky enough to finish university, see their futures turned upside down. Here is Spain, she tells me, it seems like everyone is suffering together.

It occurs to me that what's happening in Spain isn't happening just here. It's just happening here with more energy. The young people, who to a person said they had no idea what hope they have for a working future, recalled that England, too, had been racked by rioters in the early days of the economic crisis.

Rioters in Greece, in Madrid, in Barcelona have had their say, too.

Two hundred thousand Brazilians took to the streets in 12 cities this month to protest transit fare hikes, and were met with an iron fist.

As we spoke, mayors of Brazil's two most important cities had backed down, revoking the fare increases.

My job here over the next week or more is to hear more stories of people facing what many here are calling by another name from the 1930s: The Great Depression.

This blog will carry some of those stories and some of my immediate thinking, raw and unwise as it will often be. There will be time later to put it all together into the kind of story that will anchor the new Places journal, the kind that uses storytelling to decode the urban complexities of the world's most interesting places.

Captions for photos above: *At left, a bartender at an Argentinian bar in the Barri Gotic, or Gothic Quarter, makes the house speciality, a mojito. An owner tells me that many of his bartenders are frustrated psychologists, engineers and other professionals who simply can't find work in their fields. In the middle, three students on holiday from England. All are recent graduates and none have jobs, something they say is extraordinarly common across the UK. At right, the tought times in Barcelona haven't stopped the availability of food, drink and entertainment of the sort aimed at pleasing freespending travelers or the residents lucky enough to have work. *