Spain: An Under-Developing Country

A new attitude toward the future, from selling cars and medicine to exporting young professionals

Top Stories | Miguel Roncero | September 2012

As morale plunges in the job market, young Spaniards are jumping ship (Photo: J.M. Roncero)

In early August, the inconceivable happened, at least for a developed country: Trade unionists in Andalusia in southern Spain staged a raid on supermarkets in the famed cities of Seville and Cadiz, filling their carts with staples like cooking oil, milk, sugar, rice and fresh vegetables; 1,500 kg of food that was brought to a local NGO to distribute to people in need. The protesters left behind flyers warning of the consequences of the austerity measures of President Mariano Rajoy’s government. The police did not intervene.

Spain used to be a country that welcomed hundreds of thousands of migrants each year – a "promised land" for many, offering jobs, prosperity, economic growth and opportunities. Then one day, the crisis arrived and the story changed. [see also "Spain: the Party’s Over" in TVR Jul/Aug 2012] The promised land became a wasteland for most of its population, especially for its youth. Many of these young Spaniards now face a difficult choice: emigrating or exploding in frustration and violence.

The European economic crisis is hitting Spain hard; this is news to nobody, especially not to the Spaniards. The unemployment rate is close to 25%, exceeding 51% for young people. Spain is now the home of more than 25% of all job seekers in the eurozone, and 20% in the whole EU. That is nothing new either.


Emigrating from España

What is new in Spain is the number of people leaving the country. Between 2010 and 2011, 910,000 people emigrated, almost 100,000 of whom were Spaniards, resulting in a net migration rate (the absolute number of departures and arrivals) that was negative for the first time in decades. By June 2012, another 270,000 people, and 40,000 Spaniards, had packed up and left. These numbers are new in the democratic and European Spain.

There are no statistics as to who exactly is leaving: Official numbers do not show any data other than nationality and sex. Yet with 30% unemployment among young graduates and post-graduates, and ample anecdotal evidence, it is a safe bet that these well-qualified and multilingual groups count heavily among the numbers. For them, seeking opportunities abroad is no longer an adventure, but an imperative.

Austria, like Germany, Canada, Sweden or Denmark, is already recruiting in Spain, hosting events to attract medical doctors, nurses, technicians, engineers, and computing, finance and economy experts, and offering guidance on how to navigate the official requirements in each country. According to Michael Spalek, commercial adviser of the Austrian embassy in Madrid, Austria needs qualified technicians and IT professionals. Even the leading Spanish newspapers, El País and El Mundo, have published articles offering guidance to young job seekers willing to leave the country: "Time to Pack Up?" and "Guide to Going Abroad" analyse where to go, how to do it, what salary can be expected, and which professions are most in demand.


Who has left? Who plans to leave?

Many young Spaniards have left already, seeking a better future. Some of them went abroad to study, but their plans to return to Spain have been postponed. María E. left a year ago. She lives in Leipzig, where she is finishing a Masters degree in German as a Foreign Language. Returning to Spain is not part of her future career plans.

"I feel very comfortable here, the only things I miss are my family and a ‘normal’ summer," she explains. "I don’t think that the situation in Spain will change; those able to speak another language will leave Spain, and those unable will do so too."

It is unfair that young professionals are forced into exile because of misguided policies, she says. Most Spaniards, in fact, consider the politicians themselves among the country’s greatest problems, after unemployment and a troubled economy.

Her pessimism is shared by many. Rosario E. is finishing her studies in Medicine. "Degrees and languages are worthless now in Spain," she argues. Sara R. is also studying Medicine. In the long run, Spain’s situation can only get better, as it cannot get worse, she quips. Going abroad used to be a romantic idea; now, facing the upcoming need for a stable job, she assumes migration is the next natural step. For those who have finished their studies, like Manuel L. or Alicia G., going abroad is no longer just an option.


An exporter of professionals

Spain is now losing thousands of highly qualified professionals and hundreds of millions in investments. This brain drain is likely to aggravate the country’s structural problems, inequalities, and gaps. Ever since Paul Romer’s "endogenous growth theory" in 1986, evidence has been overwhelming that developed human capital and economic growth are closely linked. Spain may become the first developed country to fully test this theory.

It’s a simple equation: On average, educating a university graduate costs Spanish taxpayers €35,000 to €50,000, and as high as €200,000 in the case of a medical doctor. Yet after investing hundreds of millions in educating its youth, Spain has little to offer but precariousness and unemployment. So the highly skilled are leaving the country, generating a vacuum of professionals and a waste of resources that will surely backfire in the years to come.

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