Euro Zone Crisis: Why Young Spaniards Are Packing Up and Moving to Asia

When it comes to human capital and economic growth, it’s a zero-sum game. And in the global tug-of-war over the best and the brightest of today’s talented youth, Asia comes out on top.

Europe’s economic fragility was again laid bare in recent weeks. This time Spain took center stage in releasing record high numbers of unemployment. At the end of the second quarter, Spain reported 5.69 million jobless, raising the unemployment rate to 24.6% and ranking it the highest within the eurozone. Moreover, the rate of youth unemployment has risen to an alarming 53%.

Like their forefathers, young Spaniards are increasingly looking abroad for opportunities.

“I decided to move abroad because there is no future in my country,” admits Esther Marés, a 38-year old Barcelona native. Marés, a Spanish expat who, for the past six months, has called Thailand home, paints a dark and volatile picture of her country.

“The unemployment rate seems to have no limit, the salaries are getting lower every year and the taxes seem higher. The social rights we used to have, like free medical assistance and free education, are about to disappear. And all these facts affect the mood of the people; they are getting depressed and angry. I felt that I was not welcome in my country anymore.”

Joblessness has become an epidemic in Spain. One in 10 households has no working adults and 40% of adults over the age of 65 are supporting at least one younger relative, up from 15% just two years ago.

The atmosphere for young professionals is “just depressing,” claims Marés. “No future, no hope, nobody trusts the politicians. I think a revolution is about to start.”

According to Spain’s National Statistics Institute (NDI), the country’s rate of emigration has risen sharply in only a few years time. While the number of emigrants from Spain between 2009 and 2010 increased only 5%, in 2011 that figure shot up to 70%. In just the first half of 2012, departures from Spain increased 45% compared with the same period last year.

In 2011, nearly 62,500 Spanish-born citizens fled the country, one-third of whom were between the ages of 22 and 35. It appears that Spain, which had transitioned along with other Mediterranean countries from being a point of departure to a point of destination in recent decades, is beginning to experience another swing of the pendulum.

However, unlike those that went before them, this generation of Spaniards in their 20s and 30s is the most educated in the country’s history. The Spanish NDI calculates that the high school graduation rate among this group of young professionals is 86%, whereas the graduation rate of those who are now in the 50s and 60s lies at 50%.

Today’s Spanish immigrant is highly educated, highly qualified and looking to the East, where economies are booming and opportunities are more plentiful.

Marés, a philosophy graduate from Barcelona University, was drawn to Asia by the pleasant weather, low cost of living, and safety for women who travel alone.

“I think it was the right decision,” admits Marés. “I’m learning a new language, new culture, etc … I feel I’m growing and evolving, and nowadays it is very difficult to have this in my country.”

The attraction of Asia for disenchanted European expats is not at all one-sided. Governments across the region are welcoming migrants with open arms – as long as they fit the bill.

“As part of an effort to attract high-skilled migrants, China created the Thousand People Plan in 2008, offering competitive salaries, fast track entry, residence rights and sometimes naturalization for overseas talent,” reports Guofu Liu, an author and professor of law at the Beijing Institute of Technology.

The Asian economies, recognizing the value of an educated and diverse workforce, are capitalizing on the unemployed masses of young Europeans with prestigious degrees and no jobs. Furthermore, countries like China are looking ahead to handpick the category of labour to build the kind of economy they need.

“Last year,” says Liu, “the government extended the plan with the Thousand Foreign Experts Program, designed to attract up to 1,000 non-Chinese academics and entrepreneurs over the next 10 years. Aimed at improving innovation and research in China, the program focuses on importing academics from top foreign universities.”

Asian Tiger Singapore, rated number one in the World Bank’s “Ease of Doing Business” Index, also seeks to lure the most competitive foreign talent. Immigration has been deemed crucial to the sustainable success of the city-state and its government enacts policy accordingly. Promoting the island nation as “A Great Place to Live, Work, and Play,” Singapore has launched programs to facilitate the employment of skilled migrant workers, including recruitment missions held abroad, short-term housing subsidies, and cost-cutting company grant programs. The state even prioritizes attracting foreign students, who made up over 13% of the student population in 2010.

While European leaders are battling a continental financial crisis, national economies like Spain are bleeding at home in terms of their native talent. There is little doubt that Asia presents a hopeful alternative for the educated, unemployed Spanish youth. 

The question is, if and when the clouds begin to part in Europe, will the expats come home?

Marés, who now works as a graphic designer and translator for AutoInet Interactivo in Bangkok, is unsure.

“I don’t know for how long I will be in Asia, but what I just can’t imagine now is to come back to Spain… There is nothing to do there and the situation is getting worse every day.”