Marching for their future

Young people in Spain are making a stand against the uncertainty they say they face

Fabio Cortese is late for the appointment because his last class overran. The 19-year-old college student is one of the leaders of the first protest by a generation that is trying to shake off its "neither-nor" moniker - as in its members "neither work nor study".

Most of the organizers of the Madrid march are first-year undergraduates who feel the time has come to make themselves heard, and silence the voices that accuse them of apathy in spite of a jobless rate of 40 percent in their age group. The director of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Khan, calls them "the lost generation." But it's a description they refuse to accept.

"This is the right moment. There is a feeling of general discontent among Spain's youth. We are channeling that feeling," says Cortese, a law student who knows their initiative mirrors those of thousands of other disappointed youngsters in many countries.

"It's true we may be late, and that other countries got moving before we did, but our time is now," says Cortese, who moves around the campus of Complutense University with the ease of a final-year student.

Their role model is a 93-year-old man named Stéphane Hessel, who was active with the French Resistance and survived the Buchenwald concentration camp. These days, Hessel delivers rousing speeches to get the younger generations to fight the existing apathy in peaceful ways. "The worst attitude is indifference," he wrote in his best-selling booklet Time for Outrage!

Hessel underscores the links connecting a complex world in which it is hard to find the culprits of the current situation. Students have picked up on this line of thought to disseminate a message that has so far found greater echo on social networks (its Facebook page has 11,000 followers) than in the real world. Police estimated there were 1,000 participants at the Madrid protest, while organizers put the figure at 5,000. In either case, it is below the turnout registered at similar marches in other European countries.

Grouped together into a grassroots movement called Juventud sin futuro (or, Youth without a future), these young men and women cried out against bankers, the prime minister, the opposition leader, pension reform and labor reform. It was a lot of complaints, but "the idea of anger at the system overrode everything else." Juventud sin futuro and other groups are considering May 15 as the next date for a street protest. Isabel Casanova, 19, is a modern languages student and one of the organizers of the march, during which she yelled out slogans to the crowds from the top of a truck. "Access to a dignified job is a pipe dream," she complains.

The movement has been making the rounds on the internet for a long time. Now it is time to bring it out into the real world. Silvia Chicón, a 25-year-old from Málaga, and Carlota Fernández, 26, from Asturias, tried to do just that by directing a set of short films (Asqueadas.com) about the problems dogging today's youngsters, as seen through the eyes of three roommates. "It looks like we are finally proving that we are neither as lethargic as they say, or as lost," notes Chicón.

Students have found support for their cause in the world of culture. The poet Luis García Montero has a teenage daughter in high school, and she asked him to add his name to a student manifesto that in one passage says the following: "The best educated youngsters in [Spanish] history will live worse off than their parents."

"And they are right," says the writer. "They are seeing some of their rights rolled back, they don't know whether they'll be able to find a job or whether they'll contribute long enough to Social Security to guarantee a pension. Their future is very uncertain."

Luis Alegre, a professor of philosophy at Complutense, feels that this small group of students with little influence has hit the nail on the head. Unlike other initiatives with less media coverage, this group "was able to connect with a very deep undercurrent of unease that is undoubtedly there."

"It is the 18- and 19-year-olds who are leading the way, those who were able to channel the indignation and who view this first mobilization, which had a low turnout, as a starting point for a 'forgotten' generation that wants people to sit up and take notice of them," he adds. "I get the feeling they have anticipated something that is yet to come."

If the Spanish protest took shape on a college campus, Portuguese indignation was channeled in a café. Paula Gil, a 26-year-old intern at a non-profit organization, is one of four friends who organized a massive demonstration in Lisbon on March 12. The idea came to them as they were arguing over the instability that rules over their lives. "Something had to be done, it was the right moment. We knew that precariousness was a problem affecting people in all walks of life, not just youngsters," she says. The Generaçao à rasca (or, Generation in need) brought out 300,000 people. Paula Gil supports the Spanish movement: "Precarious conditions are affecting the entire EU and we need to take to the streets." If things keep going the way they are now, she is convinced that her generation is doomed to fighting for survival rather than to enjoying life.

A recent demonstration in Madrid organized by the Juventud Sin Futuro (Youth Without Future) platform.
A recent demonstration in Madrid organized by the Juventud Sin Futuro (Youth Without Future) platform.BERNARDO PÉREZ

Combing an alternative course

Dina and Mahasin, from Ceuta, are a jovial twosome. Sporting pink hospital uniforms, white clogs and tight ponytails, they look like two peas in a pod.

"How's Rodolfo feeling today? Come on, help us out a bit," they ask their patient kindly.

Both young women have ample training in moving patients around to prevent bed sores, but this is no ordinary day for these two students of the Sociosanitary Attention Technician course, part of Spain's vocational training program, known as formación profesional (FP).

Rodolfo is not a doll like the ones they use in class, nor is he a real hospital patient. He is an actor, whom Dina and Mahasin also "treated" the day before, when he was pretending to be afflicted with Alzheimer's disease.

Both young women represent the autonomous city of Ceuta at Spainskills 2011, a competition in which 262 students from all over Spain show off their abilities in 32 vocational training specialties.

That is why Dina and Masahin are both working with a microphone clipped to their clothes, and are standing inside an enclosed area across the way from a panel of three judges, other competitors, FP students and highschool pupils still wondering what to do with their lives.

But this is not the specialty that draws the largest crowds at the Ifema convention center in Madrid. That would be the spot where apprentice mechanics attempt to repair Mercedes cars.

The Education Ministry is throwing its weight behind this initiative, which constitutes the best showcase for a career path that currently offers the most job openings, but which has always been looked down upon in Spain, where almost everyone would rather get a college degree (leading to a glut of underpaid university graduates and a lack of tradespersons such as electricians and plumbers with proper training).

In December, the government launched the website TodoFP.es, which has already had two million visits.

"Education and training are the basic pillars of personal and professional development, and both are essential to social cohesion and wellbeing," Education Minister Ángel Gabilondo has said on several occasions.

Princess Letizia, who inaugurated the Spainskills competition, stated that vocational training is "an essential educational tool that can reorientate the economic model, encourage personal and professional growth, and, in short, improve all of society."

Now that the crisis has added many unskilled youngsters to the unemployment rolls, the number of admissions in FP courses this year reached 569,000, or 140,000 more than last year. There are 61 available degrees to choose from, soon to be expanded to 140.

Spain hopes to bring school dropout rates down to 15 percent by the year 2020, which means an annual reduction of three percent.

And Spainskills could be a starting point. An estimated 10,000 teens have already dropped by the competition in Madrid, and the multitude of buses and coaches parked outside gives a sense of the event's enormous popularity.

Although FP competitions go back as far as 1947, it is now that they are becoming especially relevant.

The event is sponsored by around 30 companies that provided the equipment that makes the competition possible in the first place: welding machines, car parts, mannequins and large kitchens worthy of a restaurant or bakery.

The most impressive areas of the show feature an actual helicopter and several tons of earth that must be used to create four orchards in the landscape gardening contest, in which contestants have 22 hours to build a garden following a plan.

"It's not a lot of time, and they are already demonstrating a good level of expertise," says Dori Ascaso, a teacher from Aragón.

"The problem is that gardening is closely linked to construction, and now, with the crisis, it's all just maintenance work."

The winners in each specialty will go to the European-level Euroskills competition, and then on to the global Worldskills contest, to be held in London.

Héctor Escriche, a Barcelona native who represented website designers at the competition, says that Spanish competitors should get more time to prepare. "In some countries they devote a year to it, and they also practice in class, not just in their free time. Some even get economic compensation," he says.

At Worldskills 2010, the 16 Spanish representatives obtained 11 medals and diplomas. This year, there will be twice as many contestants from Spain at the event.

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