Occupy Europe: How a generation went from disillusioned to indignant
By Robert Marquand, Christian Science Monitor, October 29, 2011
Madrid—The most significant current youth movement in Europe started with a tweet on Justin Bieber, the boyish Canadian crooner. On May 15, following a rally against education cuts at Madrid’s main square, a cluster of 40 students stayed on, talking into the night. Spain, like Greece and Italy, faces huge public deficits. The government has been cutting outlays for basic services like schools, health care, and social welfare. While college attendance in Spain is a success story, youth unemployment has risen to a horrific 44 percent.
So on Puerta del Sol square, the kids were hashing it out. They wanted to bed down on the square, but the police had other ideas. About 4 a.m., the police pushed the makeshift campers off. A month before, students had slept there to buy tickets to a Bieber concert. No one is sure who sent the first “Bieber tweet,” but it went instantly viral: “We can sleep on the square for Bieber tickets, but not to discuss our future.”
The tweet distilled perfectly frustrations among youth that Europe, Spain, their politicians, the banks, the system, their lives—all are in trouble and need to change. The Zapatero government, like governments across Europe, hews to a neoliberal model that stresses cutting deficits and using taxes to shore up banks. But it has said little about how to spur growth. Austerity is seen as the predominant answer to spiraling debt costs. But this offers no solace to an educated but unemployed generation that says it wants both work and meaning in life.
Yet some Rubicon was crossed on May 15. A Twitter call brought hundreds of youth to the square. The next day more than 1,000 came. By the end of the week 30,000 people, most of them young, had organized a system of tent camps, started seminars and teach-ins, and begun building a social networking site. “Yes, we camp,” they coyly said. Their moniker became indignados, or the outraged.
Today, their idea has spread across southern Europe to Rome and Athens and the far corners of Spanish cyberspace, where the group has 70,000 participants. They are part of an increasingly global movement of young people that, while not directly connected, share some of the same frustrations over the inability of economies to create jobs, and the indifference of politicians or their impotence to do anything about it.
The youth of Puerta del Sol have taken some of their inspiration from the youth of the Arab Spring. Both groups have directly inspired young members of the “Occupy Wall Street” protests in America. Indeed, from Latin America to the Middle East to China, the issue of jobless youth has become a worrisome global trend—what one British minister calls a “ticking time bomb.”
Yet each of these revolts is also rooted in its own grievances, with consequences that will be similarly singular. Few are more important than the growing restiveness of Europe’s young masses, both because of the size and breadth of the protests and because they come at a time when Europe’s finances—and collective identity—is increasingly fragile.
In some 40 in-depth interviews with under-30 youth in Spain, Greece, Britain, and France, the single point of agreement was the youths’ distrust of leaders. This is Europe’s first generation since World War II to have fewer prospects than their parents, and for now, they blame the politicians. The most common word they used to describe their lives: complicated.
Yes, they want jobs. Of course. An emblematic banner of Spanish youth on Puerta del Sol read loudly to under-30s across Europe: “Without jobs, without housing, without a future, without fear.”
One Spanish protest included a “physicists without jobs” group. Guillermo Ubieto, age 27, graduated with an advanced degree in international relations. “But there was no work. It’s the problem of Spain,” Mr. Ubieto says. “We are the best-educated generation in Spanish history, bar none. They told us study, push yourselves, you can have a good future. We haven’t earned anything. We can’t get a job…. Now we are saying something.”
Yet the Puerta del Sol protest was about a lot more than jobs. Something more fundamental was at work. It was time to stop accepting the verdict of a diminished life. But the issues being raised seem bigger than any solutions. As the indignados see it, their extremity has forced questions about what it means to be human; what values and truths to accept; how people should be treated; how democracy should work; the role of free markets, money, the social contract, community.
"We are here to claim dignity … [and] a new society that gives more priority to life than economic interest," states their informational flier.
It’s pretty utopian. And whether the indignados can survive (they still fill the square on Sunday evenings) is unclear. But their pluck brought public sympathy in Spain and Greece, and they are seen as a bellwether among analysts: Europe and its nations have a debt crisis that is testing its unity and economics. But the youth protests point to an equally important crisis—of meaning, and of what kind of spirit the age will usher in.
"People came together around feelings and diagnoses that were very abstract but also very powerful," says Arturo Debonis, who recently attended an indignados seminar by US Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz on globalization and capitalism.
"When I saw the images from Puerta del Sol, the skin on my arms jumped off," adds Gaelle Simon, 29, an earnest, young Frenchwoman who moved home after losing her factory job and apartment in Switzerland. "I had been depressed. But after Tunisia and Egypt, I could see what the Spanish kids were doing. Something’s not working in our system, but we don’t need to accept it."
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Young Europeans for decades have identified with a historic joining of the Continent. They identified strongly with postwar visions: a high-minded model of civil society, ideals of justice, a robust monetary union, and a confident zone of business dealings and corporations that set global management standards.
Author Jeremy Rifkin in 2004 saw Europe as the path to the future. Young Europeans in college seminars spoke about being European, not Dutch, or French, or Spanish. A single Europe, as was said after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, “just makes sense.”
Even in 2002, notes Paris intellectual Dominique Moisi, there was a “quasi-religious feeling” among students about creating solidarity with Czechs, Slovaks, Poles. Europe seemed a dazzling model of social cohesion—wealthy, sustainable, green, and mostly postnational. The ghosts of Auschwitz were fading. “Never again!” still echoed prominently in the streets when Germany reunified.
Democratic values were ascendant, borders were falling, and old animosities were evaporating. Indeed, Europe was a cause, and with its enlightened youth, was preparing to lead the way.
The Bosnian war was an early reality check on how prepared Europe was to sacrifice in the name of its values. But the 1999 Kosovo intervention to halt ethnic cleansing and nationalism on Europe’s doorstep, and a commitment by Brussels to keep the peace and integrate the Balkans (with the United States), helped restore the narrative. A war crimes tribunal at The Hague, the first since Nuremberg, prosecuted hundreds of officers and soldiers from those wars.
Yet the European dream is suddenly in question. Under-30s have more doubt than optimism. It is the first generation since the 1950s that feels few thrills about a Europe project. The 17-nation eurozone is debt-ridden. Ugly splits are manifest between northern- and southern-tier states. The cohesion brought by a Franco-German relationship bent on keeping Europe whole and vibrant has frayed or become exhausted.
"For a long time, I believed in Europe. I thought it was magnificent," says Olivier, 27, who studied philosophy but now works for France’s National Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies. "It was brilliant, especially in terms of its historical configuration. But today I am not satisfied…. I would love a strong Europe that speaks with one voice," but Europe is increasingly directed by Germany, says Olivier, who, like some of the others interviewed, would give only his first name.
The Germans built a competitive export economy and don’t want to pay for what they see as the irresponsible fiscal policies of southern “siesta economies.” Greece (twice), Ireland, and Portugal have needed bailouts, and it isn’t over. Spain and Italy are not out of the red-ink woods. Youth riots in London this summer may have been a singular, compulsive event, but they hold a warning.
Europe’s political elites are under attack from radical right populist parties that target Muslims and immigrants; mainstream politics accommodates views seen as extreme a few years ago. “Inward looking” is a popular phrase for Europe-watchers. New global powers like Brazil and China aren’t necessarily taken with European models of international conduct. The broad vision of Europe’s postwar leaders seems in short supply.
"We need a Franklin Roosevelt and what we’ve got are a bunch of Herbert Hoovers," says Karim Emile Bitar, at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris.
"You don’t stage a revolution with the argument that things are complicated, and we need time to discuss it," says José Ignacio Torreblanca of the Madrid office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. "But they see the political class as closed, opaque, corrupt, insensitive. All polls show a wide feeling among youth that the political class and elites are a problem."
Spanish youth, like those in other parts of the Continent, are divided over “Europe.” Many don’t see Brussels as a shining ideal but as an accounting house. Yet what’s mostly complicated are their personal lives: In an age of austerity, college grads face short-term contracts and unpaid internships—busy work that often doesn’t train them.
In France, they are the “700 generation”—earning €700 a month (US$965). Affordable housing is in short supply, rents are expensive, and for many, getting a home loan seems as likely as changing the rings of Saturn. Without a work contract, it is often hard to sign a lease. Moving from flat to flat takes a toll, and living at home puts a strain on families.
Little things cost a lot for this generation: phones, train tickets, food. Twenty-five-year-olds compete with 40-year-olds for work. As Europe ages and budgets tighten, older generations want to keep their jobs. Politicians concoct “programs” to help youth, but they give concrete benefits to older generations who vote—bus passes, optical help, winter fuel, pension breaks. The young are, well, young, and considered more adaptable.
Globally, only Southeast Asia has low youth unemployment. In Europe, figures show a rise in joblessness since the 2008 fiscal crisis began. In 2007, the overall jobless rate among youth was 14.4 percent, according to Eurostat, the statistical arm of the European Commission. But by 2010, it had risen to more than 20 percent. In Europe’s southern tier it is higher. Spain’s jobless rate rose from 18 percent to 41.6 percent among 18-to-24-year-olds. Only Germany saw a decline.
What’s different in the US and Europe, from emerging economies, is a sharp lowering of expectations enjoyed by previous generations. Wendy Cunningham of the World Bank in Washington says the old social contract that college equals a job is fast disappearing. The days of “I have a degree in medieval studies, I deserve a job” are over, she says.
Whether the disillusionment will manifest itself in something more unruly is uncertain. Down the road, some do see trouble. In an off-the-record briefing, a senior analyst at Morgan Stanley told an under-35 audience that a generational clash in Europe—more pensioners and fewer youth to support them—is a “top” long-term worry at the firm.
"Nations that have groomed a generation through a vast expense of higher education risk trouble if they can’t deliver jobs and careers to that generation," something that dates back all the way to the French Revolution, says Jack Goldstone, professor of public policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., who recently visited Athens and Cairo.
Yet unlike in the US in the 1980s, when edgy Generation Xers often blamed their granola-eating parents for their travails, Europe’s youth don’t fault their parents for their plight. Most see them as sympathetic and sacrificing. They point out that their parents are bewildered to find their offspring living at home at age 30 with a master’s degree. (Studies show that 46 percent of Europeans under 34 live with at least one parent.)
In some ways, the proliferation of social media networks (Facebook, Twitter), YouTube, and blogs makes things more “complicated,” simply because it opens so many windows on the world. Europe’s cybergeneration is less trusting of traditional media. “We want the truth. I don’t want to believe, I want to know,” says John, a 26-year-old in Athens. “I like facts. I like proof. I’m a computer scientist. I am always online. When it comes to Greek politics and the debt crisis, I draw my own conclusions.”
"We used to accept the authority of mainstream media, but we no longer do," adds Concepción Cortés Zulueta, who heads a young researchers association at a Madrid university. "Now I say look at this link, and this link, at this website, or this video. There is a lot more information, and a lot more to challenge."
Yet parents don’t completely escape criticism. “The older generations have not passed us a dream or hope,” says Adrien, 24, a graduate student of energy and climate from Versailles, France. “I’m tired of baby boomers who don’t understand anything anymore and who are frightened. Our political classes don’t understand ecology; they don’t think about the future.”
But to paraphrase The Who, many of the kids are “all right”—they work, engage in clubs and sports. They have families, meet with friends, watch a lot of film, live on the Internet, get along. An international Roman Catholic youth meeting in Madrid this summer drew more than a million participants. And not all young people reject the notion of a unified Continent. Polls show that Eastern European youth identify strongly with the idea of “Europe.”
But there is also a lot of experimenting with ideas from the East, alternative medicine, art therapy. One young basketball trainer in Madrid is part of a “slow movement”—to eat, speak, move, and live more deliberately. Many youth say an impending global catastrophe, whether economic or ecological, is not far off. There is a lot of “collapse talk.”
In the long term, the most salient issue may be a mass distrust of leaders and the “system.” And the malaise doesn’t just surface among fresh-faced 18-year-olds; people in their 30s vent about it, too.
"We are apolitical because we think nothing can be done. We don’t trust politicians. I don’t blame or feel angry," says Laura Sanchez-Vizcaíno Flys, a young award-winning cinematographer in Madrid who has become interested in acupuncture. "We just don’t trust. We see how … power corrupts, and our leaders all end up the same way, chasing money. My generation was raised to work hard, but there’s a crisis of values and of what life means."