Vacation in Context: Youth Unemployment and Birth Rate in Spain

By Sophie Horn-Mellish, Dialogue of Civilizations

The south of Spain conjures up images of beautiful beaches, Sangria with Tapas, and the famous Siesta. What more could I hope for in a study abroad: I get to lounge in the sun, look at old churches, and nap during the day. I knew going to Spain on a Dialogue of Civilizations program that the country had problems with unemployment, and this unemployment is a point of contention with the rest of the European Union, but I didn’t understand the depth or sources of the problem. The dialogue was primarily in Sevilla, a city in the State of Andalucia in the south of Spain. I stay with a woman named Clarita and her two sons Miguel age 10, and Juan age 14, who each spoke three languages and had an exceptional education including knowledge of international cultural and political differences. This left me wondering: How could a country with such an incredible education and welfare state have a workforce problem?

Roughly two weeks into our program, we had a series of lectures with a professor from Madrid University on the history of Spain, focusing on the civil war and Francisco Franco’s fascist regime that ended with a discussion on the crushing unemployment of young people. Youth unemployment, defined as unemployment among people under 25, was a staggering 36 percent as of December 2017. For reference, this compares to twelve percent of youth unemployment in the United kingdom and nine percent in the United States. The professor connected these staggering numbers to the lowering birth rate in Spain. In 1960, the birth rate in Spain was at about 22 birth per 1000 people, but by 2015 this had dropped to nine, creating dramatic change in population distribution. While the ideal population distribution look like a pyramid, with the largest populations on the bottom in groups under twenty years old, with the population getting smaller with middle aged people and the elderly. Instead, Spain’s distribution looks like a funnel, with only half as many 20 year olds as there are 50 year olds.

But why is this population funnel a problem, and how does it affect unemployment? In most economies, the most active in the workforce are people in their 20’s and 30’s. The more people are active economically, the more the economy grows, and the more jobs there are. Spain is a welfare state that takes care of the elderly and provides healthcare, but with a retirement age of 65, there aren’t enough young people in the workplace to afford it. Our professor told us to walk the streets of Spain and to observe this phenomenon: during the day, you can often see older people sitting outside, socializing and drinking. They would talk to me when I sat down alone near them, and ask me about my life in America, playfully ribbing my mistakes in Spanish. While this was relaxing and enjoyable, it also drove home just how large the population age gap problem is.

It’s a difficult situation, as much of the world is suffering from overpopulation while countries like Spain and Italy are suffering because they do not have enough of a young workforce. An additional contributing factor to the low birth rate is increasing education for women. As women are increasingly gaining a better education, they aren’t having as many children, instead focusing on going to school and getting jobs, a reality I understood as a member of this population. A positive way to encourage the birth rate is to make having kids easier. Offering more paid pregnancy leave for mother and father, subsidizing child care, and affording tax breaks after a second child are all options that could help Spain with its population issue.

This was an important experience to me, as it taught me to stop thinking of travel so selfishly. Spain and other countries are not just a relaxing escapes for me, but are independant states with their own internal problems and political difficulties. It is important when traveling to recognize these internal and external struggles, how they fit into globalization, and what the lives of the people experiencing them are like. I plan to go forward with travel by being more observative of the people and their lives, doing research and learning about the social problems of a country. I encourage others to do the same: traveling is such an enriching experience on so many levels, and it benefits to investigate all of them.