Thu, May 15, 2008 - Page 9 News List

Europe's generation less

The baby boomers have given way to the 'baby losers' in Spain, France and Italy as a new generation accustoms itself to being poorer than its parents

By Graham Keeley, Jason Burke and Tom Kington  /  THE OBSERVER , BARCELONA, PARIS AND ROME

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

The kids learning to swim at the pool near Via Casilina, in a working class suburb of Rome, could not ask for better qualified instructors. One is a literature graduate with a masters in communications from Brussels, while another, Antonio di Martino, is an aerospace engineer.

Di Martino, 30, still has to finish his degree, but with a one-year-old baby and another child on the way, and afternoons and evenings working at the pool to bring in 1,100 euros (US$1,695) a month, something had to give.

“Some of the pressure to graduate also slipped away when I saw one friend get his degree and then only earn 500 euros a month at an Italian space firm and another get 800 euros a month at the European Space Agency,” said Di Martino, bouncing his son on his knee as his partner, Mattia, rushes out the door to her teaching job, which pays 1,200 euros a month.

“My parents bought me my flat, making me one of the lucky ones since prices are crazy and I would never get a mortgage,” he said. “I spent two years of savings on doing up the bathroom and now I worry about my son. One problem, one unforeseen expense and things get serious.”

He said price checking in supermarkets was the norm — “something my mother never did.” And the family thinks hard before traveling.

“With petrol and tolls, even a trip to my parents in southern Italy now costs 100 euros,” he said.

Di Martino is part of a new phenomenon sweeping Europe. As he spoke, Africa Garcia Arias, 32, was nearing the end of a 45-hour week in a busy Madrid hospital. Six months pregnant, Arias will scale back her working week in the coming month. Although she is exhausted, this is hardly much relief. Her salary of 1,600 euros will drop to 1,000 euros a month.

Last Friday night, Lorenzo, 35, was on a train heading to work a night shift at the Berlin branch of a major US sales Web site. He trained as a historian and a photographer.

“The pay is just about OK — 2,700 euros a month for a 40-hour week — but it is hardly the job I dreamed of doing,” he said.

And in Paris, Nathalie, 24, was sitting in a friend’s tiny rented flat in the rundown 20th arrondissement, the poorest district of the city, having finished another month of unpaid “work experience” for a major publishing company. Tomorrow she will be at the second home of her parents in Brittany to sit in the sun in the garden, read and swim.

“I look at how they live, and how they lived when they were my age or a few years older, and I realize that I will never have any of that,” she said. “I am not sure whether to be angry, sad or simply resigned.”

With inflation soaring, property prices sky high, wages relatively static, labor markets gridlocked and sluggish or slowing economies, Nathalie, Lorenzo, Arias and Di Martino are among tens of millions of Europeans raised to expect that their degrees and diplomas will ensure a relatively high quality of life, but who are now realizing that the world has changed. The disappointment is a shock with big political, social, cultural and even demographic consequences.

“I am angry. I know a lot of people who are in the same situation and our qualifications are not being rewarded,” Arias said.

For Nathalie, the weekend in her parents’ seaside home will leave “a bitter taste in my mouth.”

In Spain they are known from their pay as the mileuristas (thousand euro-ers). In France they are the “babylosers” — a term coined by sociologist Louis Chauvel to contrast them with “babyboomers.” According to Chauvel, 41, a sociologist at the National Foundation for Political Science, for the first time in recent history a generation of French citizens aged between 20 and 40 can expect a lower standard of living than the one before.

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