A PhD with your coffee? Barista serving your drink might be better educated than you are
A 'lost generation' from recession-hit Europe flocks to Britain to seek work – and finds it's not always what they hoped it would be
Tuesday 22 October 2013
Nothing tastes quite as good as a coffee brewed by an expert barista. However, increasingly the chances are that the person serving you will have a high level of expertise in something a bit more substantial than coffee. With students and graduates from recession-hit Europe moving to the UK in their droves in the hope of finding work, the person serving you that cappuccino could well have a PhD.
Dubbed the "lost generation", it is not hard to come by the stories of the qualified and aspirational young people from countries such as Spain, Portugal and Greece who are struggling to find employment in the UK.
While their home countries are experiencing some of the worst effects of the economic crisis, many are realising that life as a migrant in the UK can be just as harsh and unfulfilling.
Last month, the seemingly hopeless situation led one 25-year-old Spanish man who works in a "famous coffee chain" to vent his frustration online. In a post published on Facebook and Twitter which has since been retweeted more than 31,000 times, he wrote: "My name is Benjamin Serra, I have two bachelor's degrees and a master's degree and I clean toilets. No, it is not a joke."
His sentiments have understandably been met with sympathy from his peers. Youth unemployment in Spain hit a record high of 56.1 per cent this August, and the country's lost generation now counts more than 800,000 young people among its ranks. Those with the means have left the country to seek opportunities elsewhere and in the last year alone more than 45,500 Spaniards registered for a national insurance number in the UK.
One recent migrant is Rafael Muñoz Fernandez, who came to the UK in 2010, aged 28, soon after the eurozone crisis hit. He had studied journalism in Valencia for five years but had to start working as a waiter in London, before moving on to a position in hotel. He read about Serra's online post in the Spanish newspaper El Pais. "Of course it is familiar to me because we are doing jobs which we are overqualified for," he says.
"Sometimes this is due to the language, sometimes because the lack of experience or because you didn't work in the UK before. At some point you get desperate and fed up. But there is no other way than to keep going."
Rafael Muñoz Fernandez came to the UK in 2010
For Fernando Mariano, a 26-year-old student from Porto, the situation is quite simply "scary". Mariano completed a course in acting at Portugal's leading drama school in 2008 and was initially able to find work. When the crisis hit in 2010, however, it all dried up. "It was all very sudden," he says. "The situation with culture in Portugal is very much based on subsidised companies and with the recession the government has cut them all. All my friends who are actors in Portugal are unemployed."
Mariano moved to the UK two years ago, and made the decision to go back into education to improve his chances of finding employment here in the future. He is currently studying dance and musical theatre at the The University of East London's Urdang Academy. "London is a very hard city," he says. "It's very difficult to get into a good position when you are from another country, or have an accent. Even if you went to the best school in your home country, no one's heard of it. There is work in the UK but there's a long time of adaptation, with the language. Even today I know I'll have problems with my accent."
He also feels a strong sense that his opportunities have been stunted by the recession. "It's true about the lost generation," he says. "One friend of mine is a manager in a well-known restaurant in central London. He has a degree and master's degree but even with all that education he was working as a security guard in Portugal. He came here and had to work in restaurants. He's doing well now and is learning about wine, but he had to forget his initial career path."
It is easy for Mariano to recount similar stories: "Most of my friends at home have degrees but are unemployed at the moment," he says. "One has a job in a call centre; two who set up their own company are doing well. But people have gone to Berlin, Paris, Brazil. Out of 10 friends in my hometown, six are over here now and they work in bars and restaurants." He continues: "Everyone's running away. Our PM said, 'Young people, please emigrate while you can.' Back in Portugal I have loads of friends living on just €600 (£507) a month who say they are the lucky ones."
For young people in Greece, the situation is just as desperate. At 62.9 per cent, the country has the highest youth unemployment in Europe. This is what drove 25-year-old visual communications student Demi Dimitropoulou to move to the UK in 2009.
"I only finished three out of the five years of my study because at that point the entire university structure in Greece was falling apart," she says. "Students were holding months-long sit-ins at uni, preventing classes from being held, and funding for our tutors and facilities had dried up. Because of the uncertainty I decided to move to the UK to finish my studies and find a job."
Demi Dimitropoulou from Greece
Initially she was living outside of London, doing a follow-up course in fine art, but found it impossible to find work. "Despite help from the university employment office it was virtually impossible," she says. "I applied for around 40 minimum-wage or part-time jobs in the span of a year, and got two interviews."
She is highly aware that she is not alone in this. "The situation was similar for my friends," she says. "The only people that could get work either knew someone or had previous experience. Many acquaintances, successful as they were back in their home countries, never managed to score a single position in the UK. Frankly, most of them return home within the span of a year.
"As for my generation, I think the percentages speak for themselves. In Greece, 65 per cent of young adults [under 30] are unemployed or under-employed. As far as the UK is concerned, while London is still viable as a job market, outside the capital, the countryside is suffering. And there is only that many people London can absorb before it crashes."
After moving to London, Dimitropoulou eventually found work doing web development, and she considers herself fortunate despite it feeling as if her studies and experience back home were "meaningless".
"There is no more the concept of choice," she says. "When you find a position, you tend to stay there and be thankful that you found one. And that just isn't right."
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