History repeats as Spain’s best and brightest flee

Posted on July 4, 2013

At the airport in Seville, Spain, we meet Alfredo who has come with his granddaughter Alicia. She is about to board a plane to Germany, following in the footsteps of her grandfather, who also sought a better life in Belgium during the 1960s.

Alfredo’s hopes for hearth and home have come full circle as he watches the young girl leave. The promises heralded by democracy in the late 1970s and the economic prosperity of the 1980s have not been realised. And with over 6 million unemployed and 57% youth unemployment, Spain is now in a worse position than Germany’s Weimar Republic before the Nazis.

Spanish emigrants wait to leave the country in the 1960s, a pattern that is being repeated today as Spanish youth swap laptops for cardboard cases and leave in droves to find a better life. Source: Supplied

Spanish emigrants wait to leave the country in the 1960s, a pattern that is being repeated today as Spanish youth swap laptops for cardboard cases and leave in droves to find a better life. Source: Supplied

Alicia, 28, is a sign of the times – and her generation. She has a PhD in art restoration but hasn’t yet had a chance to put her qualifications to practice. She’s held various jobs in the last five years that either paid badly or not at all, and this contract work will not count towards her superannuation when she retires. She has now been forced to take her expertise elsewhere, draining the country of the skills in which it so heavily invested.

The bigger picture

Spanish labour laws do not encourage employers to hire full-time permanent workers and many are offering only part-time contracts. Faced with high unemployment, potential employees eagerly accept these conditions. Meanwhile, the high youth unemployment rate makes it virtually impossible for a young Spaniard to even start a professional career. As a result, thousands of young Spaniards have emigrated since the beginning of the year, continuing the trend that started last year when 30,000 of them left for Germany alone, a 45% increase over the previous year

During the Civil War, Spain exchanged a big part of its gold reserves for old-fashioned guns. Today, Spain gives away a different kind of gold in exchange for nothing. The enforced departure of those with education and skills has allowed other countries to cash in on the investment made by the Spanish educational institutions, most of them public – a zero investment for maximum benefit.

But if investment in research and development is a measure of a country’s future, then Spain will be in even more trouble than it is today.

Before the real-estate bubble, Spain had one of the lowest levels of R&D investment among OEDC countries – 1.39% of gross domestic product compared to a 2.3% average – but it enjoyed spectacularly high returns. According to CRUE, an Assembly of Vice-Chancellors of Spanish Universities, scientific output in Spain grew 80% between 1997 and 2007, to account for 3.4% of the world scientific output, with two-thirds of this research conducted at universities. In SciMago rankings, these achievements have positioned Spain as the seventh scientific research power in the world.

In May, the successful cloning of adult stem cells was announced, a discovery with far-reaching implications for transplant and regenerative medicine. One of the study’s co-authors was a Spanish Biologist, Nuria Martí Gutiérrez, who is now at the University of Oregon after losing her job at a research facility in Valencia, in one of the first stages of budget cuts driven by austerity measures.

Her story exemplifies the tragic situation afflicting Spain at the moment: its youth are very well formed and capable of world-class achievement, but they have no future in Spain and are taking their expertise abroad. With the dramatic cuts to publicly financed research programs and institutions, as part of EU austerity measures, Spain will soon become one of northern Europe’s new colonies, unable to compete internationally for high-technology contracts.

Packing up

At the second anniversary celebrations of the M-15 movement in Seville, another elderly Spaniard talks about his life experiences and his grandchildren. He, like Alfredo, had to leave the country in the 1960s and came back when the situation in Spain improved. Today he sees his grandson planning to emigrate, and he is angry. Like other supporters of the M-15 movement, he is angry at the current government’s policies but feels powerless to change them. He takes to the street to express his frustration, and others applaud him with the iconic “silent applause”. He says that he doesn’t want his grandson to move away because Spain is their country now and it should also be theirs in the future.

Yet it is clear that the present holds no promise for the youth of Spain, and no one is optimistic about their future. In the last two years, the International Monetary Fund has gradually revised down its predictions for economic growth in Spain. The most recent figures in April (http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/weo/2013/01/pdf/text.pdf ) predicted a further 1.6% GDP contraction this year (revised down 0.1 % since January). Unemployment is expected to peak at 27% in 2013 and slightly decline to 26.5% in 2014. This is hardly an optimistic outlook, and one that could easily be revised down again.

When asked about the dangers of forcing Spain’s educated youth to emigrate, the Employment Minister Fátima Báñez declared in the Parliament that it should be referred to as “external mobility”, a confirmation of the ruling Popular Party’s position on this issue. It has long been playing down the problem, claiming that it will ultimately be good for the economy because young people who leave will ease the unemployment pressure for those who stay. The party also believes they will come back when the situation improves, and bring back with them knowledge and innovation from abroad.

This re-affirms what the people already know: nothing has changed from the 1960s. Spain relies on their youth to emigrate in order to save the country, and the human cost of this exercise is of no concern to the government. It’s hardly surprising that the youth are leaving and the street keeps protesting.

Source: The Conversation, story by Aleksandra Hadzelek and Rafael Rodriguez Prieto