Why college graduates are leaving Spain’s deserted interior for Madrid

Faced with limited job opportunities, more and more young Spaniards are moving from their hometowns to find work in the capital

Passengers at bus station in Valladolid.
Passengers at bus station in Valladolid.Francisco J. de las Heras

Two weeks ago, María José Pérez returned to Zamora, in Spain’s northwestern region of Castile and León, to talk about depopulation at a conference titled Reasons to Stay. The 29-year-old was born in a village in Zamora called Almaraz de Duero, but left at the age of 19 and has no plans to return because her job is in Madrid.

Pérez is not the only one who has had to leave her village, which has just 400 registered residents, though fewer live there all year round. Since the end of 2019, she has been fighting so that young people from Spain’s provinces have the opportunity to work in their hometowns, and don’t have to move to big cities such as Madrid and Barcelona.

Almost 90,000 people left Castile and León between 1999 and 2019

Last November, a group of 40 people living in Madrid from Castile and León decided to get together. They met at the headquarters of Casa de Zamora, a not-for-profit organization that supports people from Zamora province, where they drank beer and told each other how they came to be in the Spanish capital. A Humanities graduate, Pérez organized the meeting with Juanjo Álvarez, an engineer. “We are non-partisan but not apolitical,” she said.

College graduates between the ages of 25 and 39 are flocking to Madrid and Barcelona, according to research from the Center of Demographic Studies at Barcelona’s Autonomous University, as they cannot find work in line with their qualifications where they come from.

The author of the research, Miguel González Leonardo, is himself an example of the provincial brain drain. The 29-year-old geography graduate was born in Valladolid in Castile and León, and completed his bachelor’s degree there. Now he is studying for a PhD in Barcelona.

“When I finished my degree, I could see that many of us who had studied at university were moving mostly to Madrid, but also to Barcelona,” he tells EL PAÍS by phone.

College graduates are flocking to Madrid and Barcelona because they cannot find work where they come from

In regions such as Galicia, Asturias, Navarre, Castile-La Mancha, Cantabria and Valencia, between 45% and 55% of young people who leave have a university degree, compared to the 30% to 35% of those who stay. And in Castile and León, more than half of those seeking work elsewhere have a higher education. Evidence of the exodus can be seen every Sunday at the Valladolid bus station, where crowds of young people wait to make the two-hour journey back to Madrid.

Among them is Pablo Delgado, 26. He studied a double degree in Law and Business Administration and Management in Valladolid, completing his education in Brussels and Rome. Delgado has worked for the European Parliament and European Central Bank, and now works as an economist for the National Commission on Markets and Competition (CNMC) in Madrid. But really, he would like to be able to work in Valladolid.

The main obstacles, he says, are the “limited number of job offers, the irregularity of work notices, the high demands [of prospective employers] and low salaries.” He believes that institutions should “keep talent and nurture it,” and advocates working remotely to encourage decentralization, as well as to improve the public sector’s image.

Six of the 10 Spanish provinces that saw the highest population loss between 1999 and 2019 are in Castile and León, with Zamora at the top of the list, according to the National Statistics Institute (INE). Almost 90,000 people left Castile and León in this period, which is more than the entire population of Palencia, one of the region’s provincial capitals.

At the Reasons to Stay conference in Zamora, María José Pérez had the chance to voice the demands of young people forced to leave their hometowns. “For years, authorities have been indifferent toward taking care of the young people of Castile and León who are leaving the region,” she said.

The conference was also attended by Spain’s fourth deputy prime minister, Teresa Ribera, who is also the minister for Ecological Transition and Demographic Challenge. Although Pérez did not have the opportunity to talk to her personally, she did call on politicians to take action: “Now that depopulation is being discussed, it can’t be just talk, action has to be taken to fight it.”

A Spanish phenomenon

According to researcher Miguel González Leonardo, all of Spain’s regions are losing their university graduates to Madrid and Catalonia.

María Beni, 30, for example, grew up in Logroño, in the northern La Rioja region, and has just opened an architectural office in Barcelona with a partner from Zaragoza, the capital of Aragón region in the northeast of Spain.

They met while studying at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia and did not for a moment consider opening a business in their home towns. “We could have set up our office anywhere, but it’s difficult to get work outside Madrid or Barcelona,” says Beni.

The architect jokes that a lot would change if big companies such as Amazon and Google set up their Spanish offices in small cities like Logroño. For the moment, she has no plans to return to Logroño.

English version by Heather Galloway.

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