Spain's brain drain

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Spain’s brain drain

Dan Hancox on the skilled young people who, after thirty years of Spanish democracy, have few choices.


The economic crash has brought millions of Spanish people onto the streets. Iñaki Pérez de Albéniz, under a CC License.

The economic crisis has been worse for Spain’s young people than anyone else. Antonio is 30, and he is not in the worst group: 16 – 24 year olds had 43% unemployment a year ago, then 50% and now 53%. The numbers mean less when there are so many. 800,000 empty homes. Five million unemployed. Eight million angry people on the streets fighting for “real democracy now”. $84 billion cuts soon.

Antonio, like so many others, went back to live with his parents and brother. The family house felt comfortable in cold January. Antonio talked to his family, then translated for me: “My mother heard this morning: my brother has just lost his job. It was a big company. It just closed completely. He got one month’s notice.” Antonio’s mother was knitting angrily. It is hard to continue to be shocked.

But everyone was worried. The television was on. Antonio’s other brother Manuel came home from work – a primary school teacher – for lunch. The family talked about everyone they knew who had lost their jobs recently. Manuel sighed.


tunguska, under a CC License

What do people do? I asked. “Leave” he said, and laughed. Manuel’s friends were all going to other countries. “Especially the university graduates, people with lots of skills. The only jobs in Spain are at Burger King.” People go to Germany, Britain, North America in this brain drain. One cousin was going to Canada, the only place she could find the research job she trained for. Antonio was thinking about moving to France (where he had a Spanish friend) or Sweden (where he had a few work contacts) or Britain again. “Don’t tell my mother I’m thinking of leaving again” he said, smiling at her. The whole generation is asking: “So where are you going to go?”

But these university graduates, from the Spanish middle-class, do not have the most serious problems. It is a privilege to have the choice of emigration, and to have a family home to move back to. These are the graduates with no future, who were so important in the various global movements in 2011, and who will bring more changes.

Spain’s young unemployed have a lot of skills. For thirty years after Franco, social democracy has been good for education. Forty per cent of Spanish 25 – 34 year olds have university degrees, above the EU average of 34 per cent. But not many of them can use their degrees. So they are leaving. Several people have estimated that 300,000 graduates have left the country since the crisis began.

The great brain drains in history usually happened because one country needed skills, or one country was persecuting a group of people, or both. Scientists left Europe after the war for America because America didn’t have enough scientists. 17th century Huguenots left France, after persecution under Louis XIV, for South Africa and started the wine industry there. Spain’s brain drain seems less focussed. Maybe this is what will happen in the West in the future: skilled people have to move in many different directions. Like hitting an anthill with a spade. This over-educated post-Franco generation has skills to work everywhere but no opportunities to use the skills.

This is from an essay originally published Aeon Magazine. Twitter: @aeonmag

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