Portugal: A generation in danger
20 January 2010
In the United Kingdom, they call them "the lost generation" – 16 to 25-year-olds entering the working world against a backdrop of economic crisis and recession, who experience major difficulties finding and keeping jobs, even when they are well qualified. Público warns that the phenomenon is also taking hold in Portugal.
People are well aware of the phenomenon, explains Virgínia Ferreira of the Economics Faculty of the University of Coimbra (UC): “Across the border in Spain, they are called the mileuristas [because they earn 1,000 euros a month]. But in Portugal they only earn half as much, around 500 euros.” However, she believes it is an exaggeration to speak of a "lost generation," which she describes as "a readymade turn of phrase that doesn't really express a reality that is much more complex." The population is aging, and there are fewer and fewer young people. According to Portugal's National Institute of Statistics, in 1999, there were 3.1 million young people in the country, of whom 48 % (1.5 million) were in the 15-24 age bracket. In 2008, the overall figure had declined by 327,000, and the bulk of the decrease (a fall-off of 295,000) was in the age group where youngsters begin to look for work. Another key difference is that the current generation of young people is the best educated in Portugal's history. In the 2007-2008 academic year, 377,000 students were enrolled in higher education institutions, a 20 % increase over 1995-1996. And in the summer of 2008, Portuguese universities sent 83,000 graduates on to the job market, 16 % more than the previous year. But in spite of all this, “past generations had an easier time entering the labour market,” says Carlos Gonçalves, who studies the impact of university qualifications on employability. Nowadays, it takes more time to find a job. And, more often than not, those who do find work only succeed in obtaining short-term contracts, or they are hired under the recibos verdes “green receipts” system: a scheme that was originally designed for independent workers, which is now used to provide insecure employment in many sectors of the job market. For example, this is the typical status offered to graduates working in call centres.
For Elísio Estanque of the UC Economics Faculty, the main change has been the decline of “employability as a simple consequence of academic endeavour.” In the past, students sought to express their personal tastes in their choice of courses, and learning was perceived as a vocation. Now widespread access to university has forced them to adopt "a more mercenary approach." There are no guarantees of employment, and the economic crisis has made their situation more difficult. Today “they are mainly concerned with the relationship between courses and the possibility of employment, but that hasn't made it any easier for them to find jobs." The current crisis is not only affecting university graduates, but also their less qualified peers – every day, businesses are filing for bankruptcy, and factories are closing down – and the transition from childhood to the adult world has evolved to reflect a weaker labour market.
Too depressed to revolt
Young people are forced to live with their parents, and to postpone entering into grown-up commitments like buying a home, or starting a family, remarks Virgínia Ferreira. Even an insecure job is better than none. It is no longer a question of choosing one job over another, but of taking any job because there are no others. “All of my friends are depressed because the future is looking grim and none of them are happy with their jobs," says Sara Gamito of Precários Inflexíveis (No Compromise on Precarious Work) movement. They have been forced to make do, and that has made them lose heart.” “Even if we are not solely defined by what we do, work still plays a fundamental role in the construction of the self," explains Sofia Marques da Silva of the Psychology and Education Sciences Faculty of Porto Univeristy. "And reasonable pay is essential because it enables people to gain access to property, and organize the transition from one stage of life to the next. When there is no salary, there is no feeling of making progress, and there is also a loss of dignity.” Sofia Marques da Silva does not like the term "lost generation," but she is convinced that "the current generation certainly has difficulty in making plans, in coming to terms with what they will do in the long-term.”
Their notion of passage of time is overwhelmed by a sense of the present, which Sofia Marques da Silva worries might be dangerous: “Somone who does not see his or her life as a sequence of stages is more likely to focus on taking advantage of the moment, and the quest for immediate gratification.” We have not seen the outright revolt that has emerged in other European countries, but crime is on the increase. Elísio Estanque believes that the alienation of the young constitutes a threat to democracy: first and foremost, because democracy cannot function without the participation of an electorate, but also because it depends on groups, which focus on specific political interests, if it is not to grind to a halt. However, “young people are reluctant to defend their interests: they have been conditioned by fear.” That may be the overall picture, but there are some pockets of opposition, in various blogs, and in some of the movements to improve working conditions, points out Cristina Andrade of Fartos d’Estes Recibos Verdes (Fed up with Green Receipts). However, the predominant attitude is one of "alarming docility," remarks Sofia Marques da Silva. “Companies expect young people to be docile, and to accept whatever they are given.” In a survey of teenagers in the Casa de Juventude youthclub in Matosinhos, near Porto, the researcher was struck by one particularly eloquent assessment of the relationship between employers and young employees: “they eat all the meat and just throw us the bones.”