Page last updated at 11:30 GMT, Thursday, 4 March 2010

Family and friends help Spanish youth survive recession

Government employment office, Madrid
Young jobless wait in line at a Madrid government employment office

Despite being hit the hardest by Spain's economic crisis, its unemployed youth are protected by a strong belief in family unity which permeates Spanish society. But as the BBC's Sarah Rainsford finds, this may be to the detriment of drive and ambition.

I have only lived in Madrid for a few weeks, but it's a huge contrast to my last posting to Istanbul.

Life in Turkey was fast, chaotic and full of passion - some of it uncontrolled (I was woken by fist-fights outside my window almost as frequently as the call to prayer.)

After the buzz of that life by the Bosphorus, Madrid moves at a far slower pace.

Its passions are understated. This is a capital city of long, lazy lunches - of taxis that stop at pedestrian crossings unprompted, and drivers who rarely use their horns.

After Besiktas or Galatasaray, a Madrid football match seems like an oasis of calm to me.

Maybe that cool character is one reason why Spaniards seem remarkably unruffled by the economic crisis that's engulfed their country - the collapse of the construction sector that transformed Spain from one of Europe's great success stories into a potential poor relation.

I'm thinking about young people here in particular. On the face of it, their situation is most alarming.

Demonstrations against plans to raise the legal retirement age from 65 to 67, Madrid
Recent demonstrators on Madrid's streets were not disenchanted youth

Losing faith

Forty three per cent of Spain's under 25 year-olds are unemployed - well over twice the EU average. And yet, when the trade unions called protestors onto the streets last week, those young people were nowhere to be seen.

It's true the demonstrations were about pension reform, but it was the unions' first major challenge to the socialist government in six years and I had wondered whether Spain's "disenchanted youth" might bring their own grievances.

Instead, it was a grey-haired crowd which ended the rain-sodden event, fists held high, with a burst of the workers' anthem - the 'Internationale'.

All the opinion polls now show that beyond union members, Spaniards across the board are losing faith in the government's ability to deliver them from recession.

Prime Minister Zapatero is accused of improvising his economic policy.

Young people, hired on short-term contracts in the boom times, have borne the brunt of the layoffs. So why aren't they angry?

Beer bills

I've lost count of all the Spaniards I've met in their 20s or even 30s who still live with their parents.

Take Azucena for example - a bright, media studies graduate who's not had a paid job in two years. The closest she's got was a three day aptitude test for a secretarial post.

Azucena has been applying for around 30 jobs a month and been plunged into despair - but at least living with her parents means she hasn't been plunged into debt too.

Israel at work at the Botanical Gardens
Israel's apprenticeship means he needs to stay living with his parents

Then there's Israel. He's just got an apprenticeship at the Botanical Gardens, after dozens of other job applications were ignored.

His training pay is so low that he also lives with his parents. But with only beer bills - and no rent to worry about - I found Israel out enjoying himself with friends, at a comedy club.

"You have to laugh!" he said.

Spanish society acts as a cushion for the young in a crisis, and the family is at the heart of that.

Spain's strong, traditional family unit was a key factor picked up by UNICEF when it rated Spanish children amongst the happiest in the developed world.

It's now proving a protective haven for young adults. By contrast, UNICEF ranked British children most miserable.

Back home, talk of a "Broken Britain" is constant - the debate about family and community breakdown and our wayward youth and crime.

But there's no talk of a Shattered Spain here. Not a whiff of it.

The Spanish government has been playing a protective role too by extending benefit payments to keep the frustration of the unemployed from boiling over.

But there are hints of a new approach.

No ambition

A plan to raise the retirement age - though that's already being watered down by the unions, and talk, finally, of more flexibility in the labour laws to help young people back into the job market.

Some in business, though, blame young people themselves for their plight.

I met Alberto at the private TV channel he runs in Madrid. As he gave me a tour of its basement studios, he told me he despaired of Spanish youth.

A Madrid tapas bar
Young Spaniards are taking comfort in tapas bars

He claimed that most would prefer to stay in their hometown, unemployed, rather than seek their chances elsewhere.

"Friends, family and a favourite tapas bar - they are all more important to our youngsters than ambition or money," Alberto said.

It's certainly true that the tapas bars are buzzing. That is partly because for those who do have jobs, prices are cheaper now. It is also because Spaniards just cannot imagine life without them.

"This crisis is bad," one girl told me, when I asked "but we've been through bad times before. It will pass."

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