‘The Invisible Wall’ is an in-depth study of the problems this group of people is facing in a context of increasing inequality
For the first time in history, the best-educated generation may end up being worse off than their parents. Young people in Spain are facing an uncertain future because of job instability inherited from the recent economic crisis. Politikon, a group that has been promoting discussions and policies based on the knowledge of the social sciences since 2010, has published ‘The Invisible Wall’ to draw attention to the difficulties affecting young people in our country. It is an in-depth study, supported by numerous data, prepared by Luis Abenza, Berta Barbet, Silvia Clavería, Elena Costas, Jorge Galindo, Kiko Llaneras, Octavio Medina, María Ramos and Pablo Simón. The questions asked here were answered by the last two on the list. “The book is not about ‘young people against older people’. Each generation faces its own challenges, but what we want to transmit (with data) is that taking young people into account will be good for everyone”, they clarify.
-Why did you decide to explain the problems that young people are facing in this book?
Our goal, regarding the book, was to introduce the generational discussion into the public eye and policies. We think that not enough is said in Spain about the wall that separates generations. The European institutions have realised for years that the intergenerational pact on which our societies are founded is beginning to be in doubt. For example, the White Paper on the future of Europe warned that for the first time since the Second World War, there is a real risk that this generation of young adults will be worse off than their parents. And it is paradoxical that public opinion does not seem to take this into account in Spain, even though we are the European country with the highest increase in inequalities and economic risks between older and younger generations.
With this book, we want to understand the difficulties and challenges facing young people today, but it was clear from the beginning that we did not want it to be a generational “revenge” or a list of grievances of young people against the elderly. This is very important. The book is not “youth against elders” or “youth against pensioners”. Each generation faces its own challenges, but what we want to transmit (with data) is that taking young people into account will be good for everyone.
-They were the most severely affected group during the crisis and still are today, despite the fact that this is the best-educated generation in history…
Exactly. The crisis has hit us all but the most severely affected are always the most vulnerable. In Spain, the most vulnerable have undoubtedly been young households with children. All indicators point in the same direction. During the crisis, 60% of the jobs lost affected young workers, and young households have also seen the greatest reduction in disposable income, which has fallen from about 35,000 euros per year in 2011 to just 25,000 in 2014. Until a decade ago, pensioners were a particularly vulnerable group, but the data show that this trend has reversed in recent years.
-‘The Invisible Wall’ describes the existence of a generational gap in Spain that complicates the access of young people to stable and well-paid jobs. When did this barrier start to appear?
When a crisis occurs, not everyone is equally protected, and people with unstable jobs bear the brunt. If they leave their jobs, it will be difficult to find another and they will experience a great deal of uncertainty. Pensions and the salaries of civil servants, on the other hand, are like diamonds: except for small changes, they are forever.
-Why have successive governments failed to protect children and young people more as they have done with other groups?
In the book, we assume that politicians, when making decisions, are moved by electoral incentives. In other words, they try to take better care of those who vote for them. And this is bad news for young people. Their numerical weight is lower than that of other age cohorts. Furthermore, in addition to being fewer numerically, they are not attractive from the point of view of elections because they are more likely to abstain and they are more volatile; a group that only mobilises in specific contexts. This means that politicians have little interest in promoting these groups. In the end, it is the governing parties that design public policies and, therefore, in general, young people have been overlooked to a remarkable extent.
-What other mistakes have been made?
The ‘youth agenda’ is very difficult to promote because most opinion leaders and decision-makers are not of the same generation as these young people, and in addition, there is no electoral return. As political debates in Spain tend to be so short-term, it is difficult to speak of significant medium-term policies, but it is not impossible. For example, the parties have been able to reach an agreement to create the Toledo Pact on pensions. It is a question of incentives and priorities.
It should be added that although young people try to promote the issues they care about, this is not always easy. On the one hand, they often share concerns with older generations because, in the end, they have to postpone their emancipation. Young people display more empathy than other social groups regarding concerns and, therefore, do not always fight only for their own interests. In addition, young people often channel their rejection of the status quo through protests and, therefore, the public authorities do not always respond to their demands in a way that they would if they were better organised and formed part of associations.
-The high incidence of temporary jobs among younger workers is directly related to the delay in the age at which they have children and the decline in the birth rate. Does it have any other effect on the jobs that mainly women apply for?
In general, it affects one’s life project, because it generates a shorter-term horizon. This has a negative effect on the position of women because they have to deal with two problems. One consequence of this is that they tend to concentrate on safer jobs (civil servants) than in other sectors. That is the reason why those sectors tend to include more women than others.
-Is the situation of young people in Spain very different from that in the rest of EU member states? Why?
In some cases, we have common problems, such as the ageing of our welfare states or the difficulty to access housing. However, in Spain, emancipation takes place later than in other countries; the level of job instability and temporary employment are higher, and the crisis has had a stronger generational bias… The reason for this is related to the characteristics of two institutions. On the one hand, the duality of our job market makes it prone to concentrate unstable working conditions on young people. On the other hand, our Welfare State is highly oriented towards Social Security contributions, i.e. it depends on the level of employment. This problem is very specific to Spain.
-What measures should be taken in the coming years to improve the conditions that affect their future?
The main aspect is that young people must be part of the political agenda and be considered one of the priorities of society. That is why we have written this book. Our goal is to understand the difficulties and challenges facing young people today, but it was clear from the beginning that we did not want it to be a generational ‘revenge’ or a list of grievances of young people toward the elderly. Each generation faces its own challenges, but what we want to transmit is that taking young people into account will be good for everyone. In short, at Politikon we support a kind of motto that the Danish sociologist Gøsta Esping-Andersen emphasises: pension reform begins in day-care centres.