Portugal: Young generation robbed of its future
14 February 2011
So that one section of the population can benefit from long-standing social entitlements, another — that is to say the young people who are our children — is deprived of all its rights.
When the IMF intervened for the second time in Portugal, I was 26 years old. Looking back on that grim period when black flags hung over the gates of factories in suburban Lisbon and workers wondered in dismay at the months of back pay they were owed, I remember having lunch with an incorrigible optimist at the café Martinho de Arcada [in Lisbon], who made one simple remark I will never forget: “Have you noticed that, in spite of all our current problems, we are still better off than our parents generation? Remember how it was when we were little…” He was right, and what is more, our parents’ standard of living was clearly better than the one their parents had. However, when I consider the outlook for my children and the generation to come, it is obvious that this trajectory of improvement has come to a halt. And it has come to a halt because we have ruined everything – or at least because we have contributed to a situation where no further progress is possible. You might argue that those who are little older than I am – the true heirs of the baby-boomer generation of the 1960s who have held most of the power over the last three decades – are even more responsible for this state of affairs, but either way it doesn’t make much difference. What is certain is that the future we are about to entrust to the young people of this country, who already have to contend with conditions that are in many ways unbearable, leaves a lot to be desired.
"I am from the unpaid generation"
Initially, they were nicknamed the “500-euros generation,” because, although they were highly qualified, most of them were unable to find jobs that paid more than the minimum wage. But today this epithet no longer applies, because the situation is even worse. One in four young job seekers is simply unable to find work (a figure rises to one in three for higher education graduates). And notwithstanding the fact that they have completed their university studies and have degrees to show for it, a sizeable proportion of those who are employed work as taxi drivers, or in lowly paid jobs in call centres and supermarkets.
In many cases they do not even receive proper wages, but are paid with recibos verdes [the ‘green receipts’ originally designed for the remuneration of self-employed workers that have come to symbolise insecure employment in Portugal], which will soon be heavily taxed by the government. In view of this situation, most of them are forced to live at home with their parents, and are unable to settle down or take on adult responsibilities. Thirty years ago, when he portrayed my generation in the song A rapariguinha do shopping [The girl in the shopping centre], Rui Veloso highlighted the superficiality of humble folk who would stop at nothing to get ahead in the rat race: “Neat and sassy / On the up escalator / With her sewing magazine / Her shining eyes / Fragrant underarms / Bright red lips / Perfect hair / Heavy eye-shadow and eye-liner...” Now when groups like Deolinda get the crowd jumping in the concert halls of Lisbon and Porto, the anthems are on a completely different register: “I am from the unpaid generation / I don’t care about working conditions / It may sound stupid / But in a world that’s gone from bad to worse / An internship is better… better than a curse.” They are right: an internship is better than nothing, as is a job where you are only paid in luncheon vouchers. And failing that, you can always fall back on yet another post-doc scholarship, even though you know that a masters and doctorate is unlikely to improve your prospects in the working world.
If they want jobs, they will just have to wait
Not to put too fine a point on it, the young people of this generation have been robbed – and we are to blame. In the fervour that followed the Carnation Revolution [which put an end to the dictatorship in 1974], the euphoria prompted by our accession to the EU [in 1986] and the suicidal consumer frenzy buoyed by low interest rates that came hot on the heels of the adoption of the single currency, one single generation disposed of the wealth of two generations to come. As it stands, public and private debt in this country has reached a level that is greater than three years of GDP, and this is the legacy that our young people will now inherit. We want it all: job security with good salaries, regular pay-rises, shorter working hours and early retirement; first and second homes plasma TVs, and cars and mobile phone for everyone in the family. We believe that all of this is possible, and when someone has the temerity to suggest that this is not the case, we cling to our privileges like shipworms. In demanding the impossible, and with no willingness to accept the slightest compromise, we bang on about our “social entitlements” and our rights as established by the Carnation Revolution. But look at the country that we are now handing over to the younger generation. In this land of decaying city centres, if they want homes they will have to buy them because three decades have gone by without any progress on rent laws. If they want jobs, they will just have to wait, no matter how qualified they are. There is simply no way to budge their elders who will hold on to their jobs for life. No matter how well they perform in university, they will not be able to obtain jobs their either.
There are so many applicants for the few research jobs that are advertised, even an immediate application has virtually no chance of success. Prospects are no better elsewhere in the education system where a falling birth rate has led to a decline in the number of students. For those that dreamed of legal careers, this option has now been blocked by a freeze ordained by the Portuguese Order of Lawyers. So what is left? Nothing only Friday nights and the wan reflection that tomorrow is another day.
Time for the “anything goes” generation to hand over power
Just look at how we have pillaged the pension system that was supposed to sustain their retirement: under the terms of the 2007 Vieira da Silva reform, the best today’s young people can hope for is a pension worth only half of what their elders now receive. They may not have noticed, but it is worth wondering: what will become of the “live-at-home with mum and dad” generation in 30 or 40 years time?
Perhaps they are aware that their generation can no longer expect to benefit from an improvement in living standards of the scale of the one their parents enjoyed. And doubtless this is why they give little credence to well-worn political rhetoric, or hollow promises of improvement in the economy.
But in view of their situation, the young people of this generation would do well to campaign for major change that will transform working conditions. Portugal can no longer continue as a country defined by factional interests, and long-standing privilege. It must open up to its young people, and offer them the just rewards of ambition, determination and imagination. It is time for the “anything goes” generation to hand over power, because there is no greater foolishness than the stupidity that resists inevitable change, and this is something the young have well understood.