Not coming to America: young Spaniards now seek "German dream"

Over 40,000 workers have left the country this year to find jobs overseas

Emigrating Spaniard Cara San Millán, architect
Emigrating Spaniard Cara San Millán, architectSamuel Sánchez

Once upon a time, there was a land of bonanza that attracted millions of foreigners. The population grew exponentially, at a rate of almost one million new inhabitants in the space of just one year.

But then came a long, harsh nightmare - an economic crisis, they called it - and it cranked up the Moviola of history. Many citizens of the country that had taken in droves of people now embarked on the same journey that their grandparents had undertaken so long ago (albeit without the cardboard suitcases this time). People started to emigrate.

Meanwhile, individuals who had arrived here recently also began to leave to find a better life elsewhere. So many people left altogether, in fact, that there was more emigration than immigration.

This country, called Spain, now has 33,162 fewer inhabitants than when the year started out. Even so, there are still a lot of them left: 46,163,116. Of course, some people have continued to come: nearly 200,000 of them, because despite a worsening job market, this is still an attractive kingdom for many.

The state made a big investment in me but could not take advantage of it"

What is truly new is that among the emigrants, there are growing numbers of individuals bearing a burgundy passport with the word "España" on the cover, either because they were born there or were nationalized Spanish.

What started out as a fairy tale of abundance has turned into a horror movie filled with tales of unemployment.

The slow drain is not so slow anymore: between January and June, 40,625 Spaniards left the country, a 44.2 percent rise from the same period last year, according to population estimates released by the National Statistics Institute (INE). Another 228,890 foreigners left at the same time.

"We have become a land of emigration, after being a land of immigration. More people leave than enter the country because we are unable to retain them," explains Antonio Izquierdo, a professor of sociology at A Coruña University. "If a country's wealth lies in its population, then we are losing wealth."

One of the people that Spain has lost is Clara San Millán, a 27-year-old architect from Salamanca who moved to Denmark last February. For the first time, in the town of Aarhus, she has found a "real job."

"In Spain it is very difficult to start working. The most you usually find is an internship where you make very little money or none at all," she says. Now, she makes around 2,000 euros, of which she pays around a fourth in taxes.

Marta Septién, geologist
Marta Septién, geologistSamuel Sánchez

Will she be coming back? "I haven't considered it. I am fine right here in Denmark. I can see myself living here for quite a while," she says, adding that she is studying Danish six hours a week and feeling appreciated by society.

But things may not be as dramatic as they seem, according to another expert.

"There is a tendency to believe that there is a massive brain drain of young Spaniards, and it's true that they are leaving, but not massively," says Albert Sabater, of the Demographics Study Center of Autonomous University in Barcelona. "They are highly qualified people who are attracted by the better salaries abroad. They were already leaving before the crisis, and now even more so because of the lack of expectations."

Sabater also notes that we do not know how many departing Spaniards were born here and how many are nationalized citizens, but that "common sense suggests that many of the Spanish departures fall in the second category."

Since 2008, Spain has granted legal papers to over 435,000 foreigners on grounds of regular residence.

"I think it is irrelevant whether the Spaniards who leave are original or naturalized Spaniards. What I'm worried about is the loss of human capital, which is also economic capital," says Izquierdo. "People leave when they cannot make a good living here."

I am fine here in Denmark. I can see myself living here for quite a while"

Although no figures exist on the education level of the emigrants, this expert thinks that they include highly skilled citizens. But the culture and education minister, José Ignacio Wert, denies the brain drain.

Drain or not, Ernesto Domínguez, 27, is certainly gone. This native of Cáceres packed his bags in January and moved to Cologne, Germany, to try his luck. He has a degree in audiovisual communication, but his German is not so good, and the language issue has become a barrier.

"Many Spaniards are leaving to fulfill their German dream, but once they're there they crash and burn," he says. "It's really hard to get ahead: the language is complicated and professional training in Germany is very good, because they do three-year internships."

"The (Spanish) state made a very big investment in me and did not know how to put it to good use," says Domínguez about his public university degree. He has not found a job in Germany, either, because of the language, although he is now studying it.

Regarding the background and destination of the Spaniards who go abroad, official data provide very little information, and completely omit education levels. What we do know is that there is a majority of young adults, especially between 28 and 45 years of age; there are also quite a few children: over 8,000 aged two to eight. Other European countries are the preferred destinations, especially Britain (7,756 Spaniards last year), followed by France (5,264) and Germany (4,408). In the Americas, the destinations were the USA (5,041), Ecuador (4,182), Venezuela (3,033) and Argentina (2,931).

But leaving does not guarantee personal success. Neither does having a good degree. Just ask Marta Septién, 27, a geology engineer. When she began university in 2003, "professors were telling us that unemployment was zero," she recalls. But ever since she graduated last year, she has failed to find a single job opening in Spain. That is why she left for London, where she works as a waitress and dreams of working in her own field.

"Perhaps in Latin American countries like Panama, Brazil or Colombia,"she sighs.

Stories sometimes have a happy ending. And sometimes not.

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