In the summer of 2005, a 27-year-old called Carolina Alguacil wrote a letter to EL PAÍS about an emerging low-wage generation. Headed “I am a mileurista,” it attacked Spain’s labor market, characterized by short-term contracts and low wages (mil euros is Spanish for a thousand euros). Alguacil wrote: “The mileuristas are those young people aged between 25 and 34, college graduates, well-educated, who speak foreign languages, have postgraduate qualifications, masters, diplomas. They normally start out in the hostelry sector, and have spent long periods working unpaid as what are euphemistically called interns.” After several years, they might finally get a full-time contract, she wrote, but “the bad thing is they never earn more than €1,000 a month, with no bonuses. And you’d better not complain…”
The term mileurista has come to define the plight of the best-educated generation in Spain’s history. A decade ago, when Alguacil wrote her letter, the Spanish economy was already slowing down, and hundreds of thousands of university graduates like her were discovering that there weren’t enough jobs to go round. The euro had sent prices soaring, wages were falling, and the property bubble was about to burst. Even at the height of the economic boom, people’s purchasing power was falling rapidly. Today, the ongoing recession has killed off 3.7 million jobs, unleashing the worst crisis since the Civil War.
The mileurista generation has grown up. A decade on, Carolina has married, lost one job, found another, sometimes earning more than €1,000, sometimes, less, and is now about to have a baby: Nora.
In 2008 she moved from Barcelona to Córdoba, where her partner, an engineer, had found work in the renewable energy sector. She initially continued working from home. But in 2012, the company he worked for ran into trouble, he wasn’t paid for a year, and was finally made redundant. Then her company ran into trouble, and she had to look for work, eventually finding it at a digital content company in Madrid, where the couple moved in March 2013. He then found work again.
We meet on a chilly spring day along the newly created park by Madrid’s Manzanares river. Carolina brings her dog along: she found him in the street in Córdoba.
So, is she still a mileurista? “We both earn more than €1,000, fortunately, but his contract runs out in September, so we don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Does she live well? “We have lived off my salary for a while, and that has an impact. We don’t spend much, we save as much we can because we know what can happen. When we first moved here we found an apartment to rent for €650. We live okay, we still go out, we eat out with friends at the weekend every now and then, but there are no luxuries. I think this is pretty widespread. Because now people are more aware of the need to spend less.”
She’s learned the hard way about the ups and downs of life: “Things don’t necessarily go from less to more: from intern to temporary worker, and then to a full-time contract. We know that now, but our generation was unaware of this and so people were very frustrated. You have to be ready for the downturn.”
The recession may have officially ended, but in a country where around 5.4 million people are out of a job, a quarter of the workforce, people are fearful about the future. “The fear hasn’t gone, those who have lost their jobs in this crisis will go on fearing they will lose other jobs, even if things seem to be getting better,” says Luis Garrido, a sociologist at the UNED distance learning university. The feeling of insecurity, uncertainty, that something bad is going to happen, will linger for many years in the minds of Spaniards, he says.
Fedea, an economic think thank, says men’s wages have on average fallen by around 17 percent, and women’s by 14 percent over the last five years. Most new jobs are part time, and turnover of fixed contracts has risen by 23 percent since 2011. It’s easier and cheaper than ever to fire people thanks to labor reforms.
The income from a single job is often not enough to live on for many Spaniards. Montserrat Jiménez, a 40-year-old teacher, has two. “Ten years ago, my pre-doctoral grant was €1,500 a month, and when abroad, it went up to €1,800. My situation has worsened.” Now armed with a doctorate, and a specialist in Latin, she is an associate Castilian Spanish teacher at the Complutense University in Madrid. Three hours of teaching and another three supervising students a week brings her in €270 net. At the same time, she teaches Italian at the state-run Official School of Languages, which brings her in another €800. But she has no income in summer. She lives in a shared apartment that costs her €500 a month with all bills included.
“I’m a mileurista, and I almost feel privileged. But I have two jobs. I’m an associate teacher because I couldn’t find another position,” she says. Montserrat is also aware of the difficulties her students at the Complutense face. In response, many, along with teaching staff, have staged demonstrations, including taking classes out into squares and parks as a protest.
Fernando Ángel Moreno, a lecturer in philology and literary theory, is among them. None of his brightest students will be staying in Spain, he says. “Young people today are required to meet extremely high standards, and are then offered very little in return. The good ones, the really good ones, leave. And with the cuts in education, things will get worse.”
The job security once enjoyed by the parents and elders of people like Carolina Alguacil can no longer be counted on. “If I look around me at my friends, many have started families, but with a different mindset to their parents: they know that they have to live from day to day, without the security that we understood before.”
As a result, Spaniards are starting families later and later. The average age for women to have their first child is 30. The crisis has driven Spain’s birth rate down, and it is now among the lowest in the world, says Teresa Castro, a demographer at the CSIC Spanish National Research Council. In 2008, Spaniards had an average of 1.46 children; by 2013, that figure had fallen to 1.27. “As a country, we are not going to grow, but rather shrink,” she says.
In his highly influential 2011 book A Precariat Charter: From Denizens to Citizens, British academic Guy Standing says insecurity is the defining characteristic that sets today’s workers apart from their forebears. “Three of my female friends with small children work, but their jobs are temporary, or they are freelancers. They are solid enough jobs in the sense that they will continue, but not as secure as would have been the case 15 years ago,” says Carolina. “Buy an apartment? No way, unless you have a lot of money saved up, so it’s not an option, you can’t commit to it.”
“When the concept first appeared, mileuristas aspired to stop being so, but now people have become fatalistic,” says José Luis Nueno of the IESE Business School, adding that Spain has increasingly become a low-cost economy. “There is nothing wrong with low-cost per se: offering somebody something crappy because they are in a transitory situation is fine, but it is something else to do so to families who believe they are now in this situation permanently.”
Carolina Alguacil was born and grew up in Colmenar Viejo, a town in the Guadarrama mountains around 50 kilometers north of Madrid. She has five siblings, but her father’s wage as a quantity surveyor was enough to put them all through university. “We inherited the attitude of our parents, which was ‘get a good education so that you can find a good job,’ but things did not turn out that way,” she says.
How does she think her generation differs from today’s twentysomethings? “We had no idea what was coming, but young people today know that things are going to get worse, and so they work harder, they are much more focused. They go out there to kill.”
“My name is Juan Alberto Guirao García. I am 24 years of age, and I have had to drop my studies in the middle of the academic year because I can’t pay my tuition fees after ending up without a grant, and am now working in McDonald’s. […] For the first five months, I was able to live off the little savings I had and with help from my parents while I waited to see if I would get a grant to study. But it never happened. On Christmas Eve, December 24, I was in the library preparing for my exams in January, and received the email telling me I had been turned down. I opened it, read it, and picked up my books. That was the last time I looked at my master’s degree notes.”
The open letter was addressed to Spanish Education Minister José Ignacio Wert. Juan Alberto says he doesn’t want to give the impression he feels sorry for himself, but talking to him, it’s clear he is bitter. “We’re not mileuristas. We are just poor. I wish I could earn €1,000, but my generation is earning between €700 and €800 a month,” he says, adding that he personally takes home around €450 a month for a 20-hour week, and describes himself as underemployed.
Like Carolina Alguacil, he grew up in a family supported by his father’s income. He was given a grant, gained a degree in social work from the University of Murcia, and last October, started a master’s degree at the Complutense costing €8,000. “There are people who believe that there shouldn’t be grants for master’s programs, but this is about equal opportunity. If my family had the money, I would still be studying,” he says.
In Spain, families with huge differences in income have still seen themselves as middle class, but Juan says that dream is over. He is overqualified, but doomed to a low-income for the rest of his life.
José García Montalvo, a professor of sociology at the Universidad Pompeu Fabra, says that in 2008, around 42 percent of young people said they believed they were overqualified; by 2011 that figure had fallen to 28 percent because huge numbers of low-qualification jobs have disappeared, while at the same time, there has been a huge increase in the numbers of young people who aren’t worried about where they work, as long as they have a job: from 12 percent in 2005, to 48 percent in 2011. “Three years on, they don’t feel overqualified, that means they have lowered their expectations: that’s dramatic. Our economy is based on tourism and services, while the people who run our businesses are less well educated than the rest of society, which means that education is less and less important,” he adds.
Does this mean that young people will rise up and protest? “How are they going to do that: mileuristas no longer measure themselves against somebody earning €1,500 or €2,000, they compare themselves with the unemployed, with those who have nothing,” says Luis Garrido.
Take somebody like Rubén del Campo, for example, who feels he is relatively well off. He studied biology, then took a master’s in biodiversity, and now, aged 25, is immersed in a doctoral thesis on river ecology, while receiving a grant of around €1,000 a month. “I am extremely lucky. Very few people are working in something related to their studies, while others are looking for unpaid work experience,” he says, adding that he hopes to find a job in the medium term.
Of the 3.7 million jobs lost in Spain over the last five years, 2.5 million were posts occupied by people aged under 30. But as Josep Oliver, professor of economics at Barcelona’s Autònoma University, points out, the roots of the mileurista phenomenon date back to before the crisis, and things are not going to change much even if the economy picks up. “There are structural factors, such as the fact that the global labor force has tripled in the last three decades. That drives wages down, as happened between 2001 and 2005, but with the crisis the trend has increased; and as technology improves, more jobs will be destroyed,” he says.
In 2001, US aviation company the Lear Corporation closed its plant in Cervera, in Catalonia, which employed 1,280 people. It was making money, but the company decided to move to Poland to save costs further. During this time a great many factories closed in Spain, relocating to eastern Europe in the hope of making greater savings and increasing their profits, but the property boom and the availability of cheap money masked the impact of what was going on. But when the housing crash came, and the dust settled, the factories had all gone.
“There is a huge paradox within globalization: we are transferring production to other countries to make things more cheaply so that our unemployed can afford to buy them,” says Nueno.
Does Juan Alberto regret having studied social work? He looks surprised at the question. “No, of course not. But I do worry about the future. In my first year of studies I was told that I would never make any money, but I just wanted to earn enough to live.”
Mireia Bauxauli is aged 17, but will turn 18 in time to vote in this year’s general election. She says it’s difficult to know whom to vote for: “Those who led us into the crisis, others who are up to their eyes in corruption, or the latest supposed saviors of the country, who are shouting from the rooftops what they intend to do, although they themselves have no idea if they can do any of the things they are promising. I just hope that mine isn’t yet another lost generation.”
She has grown up in a time when the concept of the mileurista already existed, and the first prime minister she remembers is José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the Socialist Party leader in office between 2004 and 2011. She has no memory of the boom years, but remembers the first signs of the crisis: “I was in school, I must have been around 10, and some of my friends’ parents lost their jobs and a lot of kids left the school because they couldn’t pay the fees.”
What does she talk about in class now? “When the crisis started there were people who said ‘Why should I study if I’m not going to find a job?’ But now most people say they will have to study harder than ever because there are so few jobs, or they will have to go abroad. The teachers say it’s not enough to get good grades, that we’ll have to get the highest possible ones if we want to find a job.”
Mireia says she would like to study journalism, but isn’t sure she’ll find work, and so is thinking instead about business studies. Similarly, she hasn’t decided whom she’ll vote for.
Paradoxically, Mireia lives in a low-cost world thanks to the internet, which offers everything from free telephone calls to car sharing, but she is also aware that her life is going to be much harder than that of her parents.
Josep Oliver says that unequal wealth distribution needs to be addressed, and can be tackled: “Wealth is concentrated in high salaries, but aggressive tax policies and a greater focus on value addition could help put a brake on inequality.”
Spain’s income gap is among the widest in the EU. Mireia, whose father is an agricultural engineer and whose mother is a teacher, says she is worried about being condemned to a low-wage life. “I am not accustomed to being short of money. I don’t get any pocket money, but if I need something I ask for it. I don’t really know if I could live on €800.”
A decade on, young people continue to write letters to EL PAÍS about their concerns. Mireia is just hoping that by the time she finishes her studies, “the crisis will be over for good.”