In Portugal, the rate of youth unemployment is hovering at twice the national average. Among those who have a job, only a third are fortunate enough to escape the trap of recibos verdes [the “green receipt book” or self-employed worker status which is now emblematic of the lack of job security in Portugal] or other forms of insecure employment. Today one graduate in every ten is leaving the country, which offers little in the way of a future to the current young generation. Not surprisingly, the unions which have called for a general strike on Wednesday 24 November, want young people to do more to defend the economic and social rights of their peers.

In a country where graduates are the exception rather than the rule, and in an increasingly competitive labour market where university training has become a prerequisite for recruiters, the growing number of graduates should be welcome news. But it is not the case. One of the worst aspects of the crisis is that the young job seekers who have been hardest hit by the downturn are those who have invested the most in their studies.

Individualism is all very well when the money is rolling in

For Elísio Estanque, an economics professor and researcher at Coimbra University’s Centre for Social Studies, the position adopted by the unions “is all the more justified because individualism and the instinct for self-preservation have made young people reluctant to engage in any form of collective struggle: the trade unions will have to find ways to raise their awareness and to motivate them to take action.”

Estanque adds, “Individualism is all very well when the money is rolling in and there are opportunities on every corner. But everything changes in times of crisis,” which is why “individualism is a spent resource.” When the going gets tough, he argues, it is “natural for young people, who have been driven to despair or simply have taken stock of their situation, to begin to organise. And the recent non-violent invasion of a call-center [by the job security campaigners of the Precários Inflexíveis collective] is a sign of things to come.” It is not easy for workers who have to make do with short-term contracts or non-voluntary self-employed status to stand up to management: especially in a context where “democracy is lacking,” remarks Estanque.

Emigration mainly affects the young working population

With relatively few and usually only low-skilled jobs on offer in the country, many of Portugal’s graduates are choosing to try their luck elsewhere. Over the last decade, emigration rose to levels that had not been seen since the 1960s. And a recent fall-back in these figures has only occurred because the economic crisis has also begun to affect destination countries for Portuguese migrants. Professor Rui Pena Pires of Lisbon University Institute’s Centre for Research and Studies in Sociology believes that as many as 60,000 people a year are leaving the country (as opposed to approximately 70,000 in the 1960s). However, emigration is not the same as it was, because “in the past, people who left for a few years hardly ever came back, but today there is much more mobility.”

“We will have statistics for specific age groups in about six months. However, we already know that emigration mainly affects the young working population,” explains the coordinator of the Atlas das Migrações [Atlas of Migration] project. The figures that we will shortly obtain will probably confirm that: “We all know young people who have recently left Portugal. In my own case, both of my sons are now living abroad.”

Portugal – a net exporter of brains

Better prepared, and often benefiting from social networks developed in the course of university exchange programmes, graduates are leading the way in the exodus. Today’s labour market is well and truly international. According to the World Bank, 20% of Portuguese graduates now live abroad, and if we examine that figure on a more detailed level, we can see that more than half of these graduates (11%) completed degrees in Portugal before leaving the country.

“In the United Kingdom, 10% of students opt to leave the country as soon as they are awarded their degrees. But it is important to bear in mind that the situation is not quite the same as in Portugal, because the number of graduates arriving in the UK largely outweighs the number that are leaving,” explains Rui Pena Pires. In other words, Portugal now has the distinction of being a net exporter of brains. “We will have to take better care of the young generation if we want our economy to be competitive, and to ensure that Portugal remains a secure place to live with a thriving democracy,” insists Elísio Estanque. “The trouble is that the young people who have the most skills and are the best qualified are also the ones who are the most adventurous. They are the ones who are ready to face the risks involved in emigrating.”