An Awakening That Keeps Them Up All Night

Written on June 7, 2011 by Ángeles Figueroa-Alcorta in Culture & Society, Democracy & Human Rights, Europe

By Suzanne Daley 

A sea of mostly young adults raised their hands in approval during a “general assembly” last month in Barcelona. Thousands of Spaniards have set up camps in several cities to protest the country's political system amid the economic crisis.

(Madrid). As daylight faded, a cluster of young protesters sat in a circle discussing whether to support a new tax on financial transactions. They had gathered most evenings this week, hoping to turn two weeks of demonstrations that have filled city squares across this country and taken the political establishment by surprise, into something more lasting — a set of demands.

“We need change in this country,” said Ruth Martínez, a member of the group who has been unemployed for nearly three years.

Until recently, young people in Spain were dismissed as an apathetic generation, uninterested in party politics. But the outpouring of young people who have taken to the streets since May 15 — at one point about 28,000 protesters spent the night in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol square — has changed all that, forcing the country to take heed and reconsider.

The recession that has ravaged Spain, along with much of southern Europe, has had an especially hard impact on the young, with unemployment rates soaring to more than 40 percent for 20- to 24-year-olds, about twice the national average and the highest in the European Union. Many of them see limited hope of improvement unless they reshuffle the political deck and demand a new approach to creating jobs.

“Suddenly people are talking about politics everywhere,” said María Luz Morán, a sociologist at the Complutense University of Madrid. “You go to have coffee or you are standing in the subway and you hear conversations about politics. It’s been years since I heard anyone talking about politics.”

Even young people who have jobs here are often caught in a system of poorly paid, temporary contracts. The contracts were once designed to help them break into the labor force, but they have served instead to put adulthood out of reach for many. Ms. Moran said that one survey showed that about 50 percent of 30-year-olds in Spain were still living with their parents.

“We call 32- and 35-year-olds young people in Spain, because they are forced to live like children,” she said. “Thirty-year-olds should have their own homes.”

Few experts are willing to say what the protesters might achieve. But already issues that were discussed only at the margins are being taken more seriously. One major conservative daily newspaper, ABC, polled constitutional experts this week about what it would take to change the election laws, one of the principal demands of the demonstrators, who say the current system heavily favors the country’s two leading political parties. Read more…

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As published in www.nytimes.com on June 6, 2011 (a version of this article appeared in print on June 7, 2011, on page A4 of the New York edition with the headline: A Political Awakening That Keeps Them Up All Night).


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