I spent the past semester living with a host family and studying at IE University in Segovia, Spain. While there, I observed many aspects of the Spanish economy. One phenomenon astonished me: Spain’s high rate of unemployment.
According to Eurostat, nearly 20% of Spain’s labor force was looking for paid work in 2016—an astronomical level by anybody’s standards. The unemployment rate in Spain today rivals the levels of unemployment of the United States during the Great Depression. And, unemployment stayed above 20% for 5 years, from 2011 to 2015, compared to the single year of 25% unemployment Americans experienced in 1933. In contrast, American unemployment has stayed around 5% in recent years after peaking at 10 percent in 2009.
So, what’s it like to live like this? I decided to ask some Spaniards about it.. Everybody I spoke to had a lot to say about unemployment.
When I asked my host father, he noted the suffering he sees in the eyes of the people he passes on the street. From my friend Eva, there was a little optimism—she acknowledged that there had been some improvement in the last few years. My friend Jose expressed his concern that unemployment will increase with time due, in part, to machine labor.
My friend Rodrigo told me that the problem is especially grave for youth in Spain. He’s right—the level of unemployment for Spaniards under the age of 25, in 2016, was a mind-boggling 45.5%.
The cultural implications of Spain’s unemployment, especially youth unemployment, are fascinating.
It is common for Spaniards to live at home until the age of 30. Every young person (between the ages of 18 and 26 years old) I met during my four months in Spain lived with their parents. When I asked about this, I was told that it was the only reasonable way to live; it is too expensive for young Spaniards to rent their own apartments when they can live for free at home where there are well-balanced meals every day and clean laundry every week.
The path of logic from unemployment to living at home doesn’t stop there. It also leads to some unique cultural ideas about adulthood. Because many Spaniards live at home until they are 30 years old, I found that Spanish adults don’t really consider people younger than 30 to be autonomous adults.
In many ways, I felt that during my time in Spain I wasn’t treated as an adult. For example, my host mother often made my bed and cleaned my room for me. I was also told that I needed to eat all of the food on my plate, and I never walked away from the table without eating fruit. My real mother would never make my bed (she scolded me when I told her what my host mother was doing for me) and I can’t remember the last time my diet was monitored.
In the United States, young people are often faced with the expectation of moving out and living independently. High value is placed on young people who are able to lead responsible and disciplined lives. That often means moving out of the house early, at least in comparison to Spanish standards. There isn’t an equivalent expectation in Spain that young people need to move out from the home and start to lead the type of independent lives that Americans expect from young adults.
High youth unemployment in Spain may have created a cultural notion about adulthood that doesn’t exist in a country where unemployment is more controlled. There may be other implications that are caused by the high unemployment level, like a higher average age that people marry or a decrease in family size. Only time will tell, but it’s certain that there will be consequences of Spain’s high unemployment rates for years to come.