Portugal: The 'desperate generation' takes to the streets

19 March 2011

Last Saturday, a massive national protest sprung up in Portugal in 11 cities, with almost 300,000 people in Lisbon and Oporto alone taking to the streets to shout out their social grievances and lost expectations in the fight against social precariousness.

Largely a youth movement initially sparked by Facebook users, this ‘best qualified generation’ in the country’s history calls itself the geracao a rasca, a desperate generation of undergraduates, graduates and postgraduates, many of whom remain in their parents’ homes because they can’t find a job.

As one of the protestors cried through a megaphone, most of them are ‘unemployed, minimum wage earners and others who are poorly paid, slaves in disguise, subcontractors, temporary workers, false freelancers, intermittent workers, trainees, bursars, student-workers ‘.

Being the sons of the Portuguese Revolucao dos Cravos (April Revolution, 1974) which their parents brought about, they grew up in a society which promised them the moon by continuing to open its doors to a vast influx of future graduates who would fill up highly specialized roles within the working sector – such as professors, lawyers and engineers.

This policy was no less different than the short-time utopia created after the revolution. During that time, the sons of those who moved from the country side to the big cities could immediately grab a high-pay job after they went to university. For them the mantra was, and still is to this day – ‘if you don’t have a job, it’s because you don’t want to. ‘

But that utopia has outlived itself. Today, academic inflation – which has been more or less plaguing the Western world for the past years – has paved the way for a far harsher reality. To such an extent, in fact, that the only higher-education degree that guarantees work in Portugal without question is Medicine.

For the vast majority of undergraduates, however, the world that awaits them beyond university doors is already over fluxed with the previous generation of highly-educated baby boomers.

‘There is no greater injustice than inequality between generations,’ said a senior Lisbon justice official quoted in the Financial Times. ‘My generation have bought their houses and their cars, but our comfort is depriving young people of their future.’

If this generation is lucky, like the chorus of a song by one of Portugal’s bands goes, it ends up living in a world ‘where to be a slave you need a degree’. But many cannot secure the privilege of being slaves.

In a study initially released by the European Commission, the current unemployment rate for university graduates in Portugal under the age of 25 peaks at over 30%.

However, drawing the conclusion (silently subscribed by the government) that this large number of unemployed does not want to work may be to a certain extent misleading.

Echoing the social manacling to which many have become victims to, an unemployed graduate in Political Science told the Portuguese news channel RTP1 that his constant attempts to find a regular job were invariably met with the response, ‘we are sad to inform you that you do not possess the adequate profile for this placement.’

Another unemployed graduate interviewed by SIC Noticias, Paulo Agante, 24, tackled these assumptions head on by saying, ‘I find it rather aggravating when people look upon us as spoiled brats. I have worked in various fields and have no trouble with working whatsoever.’

In view of this, the older generation’s reaction often falls into believing that the new one should emigrate to other countries in Europe, like many did a long time ago, picking up apples in France, working in restaurants in England and housecleaning in Germany to carve a better future for themselves.

To Ines Gregorio, 29, an Art History graduate who has been working in cafes for the past six years and joined thousands more like her in last week’s protest, this makes no sense.

‘We are the best qualified generation in the history of Portugal and we want to use our skills to better our country. We don’t want to emigrate. It is in the natural order of things to leave home, get married and have children’, she says, also quoted in the FT.

For those who protest, the problem lies in the measures the government has put through during its time in office.

Gradually, things like the escalation of Portugal’s ‘recibos verdes’ (official receipts), which were initially designed for freelancers providing sporadic services for different companies, have turned what should be more permanent workers into temporary ones, almost independent, and in no way protected should they find themselves out of work. Hundreds of thousands of people are now part of this system, almost half of which are graduates, making them the all time champions of official receipts.

Additionally, a recent bill which passed in parliament will make it easier for companies to sack their employees, by lowering the compensation they are obliged to pay them.

All in all, this gives us a portrait of a very unsecure environment for those who are about to enter the working sector. It remains to be seen if all those who protested last week were shouting to the wind.

For many of them, however, the fight goes on, as new marches and protests are organized, and vibrant discussion on social networks encourages all to organize and propose concrete measures to the government, which might in the near future change a situation which is looking increasingly less sustainable.

Sebastiao Martins

Photo Credit: Catarina Fernandes