The photo made me stop short, my coffee cup hovering a few inches above the newspaper. A young man in jeans and a Barcelona soccer jersey bent over a Dumpster rummaging for food.
Spain is suffering 50 percent unemployment among young people, the article explained, and hunger is on the rise.
The last time I was in Spain was the spring of 2001. I was 21, living it up on a strong dollar. The euro was on its way, but in the final months of the peseta rent was 40 dollars and a trough of Sangria cost a few bucks. My Spanish friends, one of the first generations to grow up in a dictator-free Spain, seemed as apathetically confident in their futures as 20-something Americans.
How things have changed. Fast-forward to a US election hinged on economic issues and the Great Recession, a time when the country anxiously awaits job reports, politicians use food-stamp stats against each other, and numbers like 47 percent and 1 percent are code for bitter class divides.
Many of my friends are unemployed and underemployed. And I teach undergrads at the University of Washington, where rarely a class goes by without a grim reference to “the economy.”
Jeremy Epstein, a college student in an oversized suit, was speaking for an anxious generation when he stood up in the second presidential debate and mumbled, “What can you say to reassure me, but more importantly my parents, that I will be able to sufficiently support myself after I graduate?”
Despite the global scope of this recession, we still tend to think of our economic troubles in terms of our own national borders.
This summer while reporting in Ukraine — a country hit hard by the 2008 downturn — I was struck by some surprising similarities to recession-era Seattle. Walking around Kiev, I stumbled into a neighborhood of newly constructed pastel row houses. The windows reflected a mirror blue in the morning sun and a security guard eyed me from under the bill of his hat.
My translator, Arthur Bondar, 28, explained that local oligarchs had built these houses betting on a real-estate market that hadn’t delivered, and most of them were empty.
“Can you imagine housing going unused like this when none of my friends can even afford to live in Kiev proper anymore?” he asked, outraged.
I thought of real-estate speculation and rising housing costs in my own city, and told him, that in fact, I could.
Arthur’s strikingly familiar complaint about affordable housing and the heartbreaking photo of the hungry Spaniard got me thinking: How does our experience compare to our peers abroad?
It may seem rough out there to us, but what’s it like to be in your 20s or early 30s in southern Europe or the former Soviet Union or the U. K.? I started by seeking out one of my Spanish buddies from back in the day.
“People in Spain have begun to think that we are a lost generation and we need solutions and jobs NOW,” says David Herrera Rodriguez, a 32-year-old construction worker, via Facebook message. “I live with my parents. … I have a (monthly) salary of 600 euros (about $750).
His frustration practically crackled over the Internet in stark contrast to the laid back, Pearl Jam-loving roommate I remembered. “All this is in the ‘black economy,’ I am an illegal worker since my company cannot afford to pay my social security insurance.”
I also put the question out to my social networks and was stunned by the quick response. Young people from all over the world were eager to share their own thoughts, especially their anger and disappointment.
One response from Poland — a country with 25 percent youth unemployment — also spoke of “a lost generation in our country.” A man in Scotland said unemployment is high and “does not seem to be getting better” and shared a list of articles chronicling protesting youth.
Back in Seattle, my former student Celina Kareiva, 23, is now working three part-time jobs to make ends meet. “The (job) search has been grueling,” she says. “I’ve found mostly temporary work, which doesn’t offer a lot of stability or direction.”
“What we’re seeing now is what people in other parts of the world have already experienced,” says Stephen Young, a University of Wisconsin geography assistant professor who studies economic globalization. “Where you get a degree and end up working at Starbucks.”
Harsh. But maybe it’s not all bad. This could be a chance to stand in solidarity with the young man in the soccer jersey reaching into the dumpster. Maybe this generation can turn our shared anxiety into a shared opportunity to address universal problems like climate change and hunger.
Because whatever our new economic future looks like, we’d surely benefit from seeing how we’re in it together.