Too old to have a future?
Around a fifth of Spain's 5.7 million unemployed are 50 or over
Society does not know how to exploit this human capital
Experts say it is vital to maintain a working routine and look to the web for opportunities
Manuel Marín gives his name, and speaking clearly and slowly, begins to talk about his profession as a baker in Seville, which he began at the age of 11 when his father would take him out on delivery runs. But five years ago, when he hit 50, he lost his job.
"The only money that comes into this household every month is 426 euros," he explains. That is the minimum unemployment subsidy paid by the government to the long-term unemployed, and on which Marín and his wife and four children, one of whom has a wife and small child and another on the way, have to live. His fourth child, also unemployed, is living with his partner's family. How do they make ends meet? "The best we can, and with some help from friends and neighbors..." he says, trailing off, unable to continue.
Work is more than simply a way to earn money. "It gives us a sense of self-worth, a sense of dignity, depending on our gender, our age, the amount of time spent training," explains José Antonio Espino, head of mental health at a hospital in the Madrid dormitory town of Majadahonda. He says that losing one's job is a particularly tough blow once one passes 50, particularly in a country where the chances of finding another are, to say the least, slim.
Of a national total of 5.7 million unemployed, there are more than one million people aged between 50 and 64. "In Western countries, despite legislation that forbids employers to ask a candidate's age, we still tend to discriminate in favor of the young in the world of work," says José María Peiró, professor of the psychology of work at the University of Valencia, and a researcher at the Valencia Institute of Economic Research (IVIE).
Spanish law only allows employers to ask a candidate's age if it directly impinges on their ability to perform the task. Nevertheless, it is very difficult to prove that one has been discriminated against on the grounds of age.
"This predilection for youth means that we are losing an important human resource that has tremendous work experience," says Peiró. We attribute the concepts of initiative, drive and motivation to young people, "but this is not necessarily the case; there are already a great many businesses that have seen the potential of older women, whose children have now left home, and who can now resume the career that they may have parked; or they can simply start new careers. They bring common sense, they are careful, and have a highly developed sense of responsibility. They take less time off, pay attention to what they are doing and they are highly conscientious," adds Peiró. That said, he believes that given Spain's high unemployment rate, older people returning to work, or trying to find a job after being made redundant, will have to lower their expectations.
"People may find themselves applying for jobs they think are beneath them, and may not want to accept lower pay grades, but maybe they need to see such offers as something temporary, and, like younger people, perhaps they should also think about setting up their own business, and taking a more entrepreneurial approach."
But for many people there are neither better nor worse offers: there are none. For example Manuel and his wife, Natividad, have been unable to find work as a baker or cleaner, respectively. This, to some extent, is a reflection of their skills and training, although the generation of Spaniards in their fifties today is very different from that of say, two decades ago: a third of people aged between 55 and 64 have been through higher education of some sort, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Not that those with a university degree are finding it much easier to get a job.
Maribel, who doesn't want her real name to be published in this report, has been out of work for a year, and only managed to get her first job interview a few weeks ago after applying for positions on an almost daily basis during the preceding 12 months. She studied psychology at university, and has spent most of her 25 years in the labor market working in training. She has just turned 50, is divorced, and has a daughter at university. She says that she tells herself every morning: "Maribel, you are going to find something very soon."
She knows that if she loses her focus, she is likely to become depressed, anxious, and negative.
"I have worked and saved for 25 years, and never lived beyond my means. But that doesn't prevent one from getting down over time. This year I didn't go on holiday, even though I had friends and family that I could have stayed with... But I kept asking myself why I needed a holiday. I know that that isn't right, because I am at home all day, cooking and cleaning, as well as sitting in front of a computer looking for work, and putting different CVs together."
One thing Maribel has learned over the course of her year out of work is where to look for employment, and how to go about applying for jobs. But anybody who has been out of work for a long time knows that it is difficult to keep one's spirits up, and how easy it is to slip into depression.
Social workers say that their books are full of men and women in need of professional help, and who may already be taking antidepressants. Very often, having a good education and being used to working in a well-paid, satisfying job, as was the case with Maribel, only heightens the sense of frustration and impotence, says Dr José Antonio Espino.
"The higher the level of skills people have, the more susceptible to depression they are. It is related to the time that they have spent training and studying, and the time it will have taken to find a good job in the first place. Unemployment hits our self-esteem hard." He says that finding a job can be just as damaging, if one believes that it is not up to one's pay grade or skills level.
Gender is also a factor: men tend to find it more difficult to deal with unemployment than women, while younger people now understand that over the course of their lives they will probably have many different jobs. "But the older generation grew up in a country where the norm was to look for, and find, a job for life, whether in a bank, a factory or the public sector. So when older people lose their job, it's as if their whole world has collapsed around them," says Espino.
The doctor explains that there are two main factors that help prevent people from succumbing to the effects of long-term unemployment and the search for a new job: the state welfare system, and one's own network of contacts and support. Without either, it is very easy to find oneself suddenly on the margins of society: living on the street, or simply upping sticks and leaving one's home and family.
"There are a great many studies that compare the different economic crises that we have been through over the last century in different countries: in the 1930s and again in the 70s. In Sweden, for example, the state made a real effort to protect the unemployed, and the country's suicide rate remained stable as a result, as opposed to what is happening in Greece or Italy at the moment, where the number of people ending their own lives has risen sharply over the last year. The degree to which a country looks after the unemployed is directly related to levels of unhappiness and social discontent, as well as suicide," argues Espino.
Equally as important is having a support network of family and friends, say social workers. And not simply for the material help they can provide in terms of food or money, but also because they help us to keep things in perspective and give us emotional support.
In the final analysis, says Espino, work is more than simply a way to make a living, or a reflection of our social status, or even a reflection of our sense of self-esteem; "It is part of our internal structure. One of the biggest problems associated with unemployment is that we no longer organize our time properly. It's similar to what happens when somebody retires who has not been able to create a new life, a new routine." He emphasizes the importance of keeping to the same routines and patterns when one loses one's job, or creating new ones.
"The important thing is to have some structure in one's life, whether it is taking the kids to school, making lunch or dinner, sitting down in front of the computer between this time and that time: anything other than just sitting around staring out of the window."
When retired people take up swimming, look after their grandchildren after they come home from school, or sign up to university courses or night school, they say that they have never been busier," says Espino. "Getting angry with one's family is often to do with losing one's sense of routine, or not having enough to do. It's the same as being held in isolation, which is a form of torture, as we have seen from Guantánamo, because it affects one's brain activity, and can even lead to breakdown, which is why people who had highly complex jobs that required a lot of thought and energy are often more likely to allow their lives to fall apart when they lose their job," the mental health consultant concludes.
Optimism, thinking ahead, and accepting that it is going to take time to find work are the best ways to deal with unemployment, says Susana Salcedo, aged 24, and in employment. Along with a group of friends, she set up www.encuentraempleomayoresde50.org, a website dedicated to helping the over-fifties deal with unemployment, and to find work.
"Things are terrible; the outlook is terrifying, so we decided to try to do something to help people. We look for jobs that specifically advertise for older people, and put links to them on the site. Some people have found work, and that is a big encouragement to develop the site."
The site is a potpourri of employment opportunities: there are positions that require specific experience in a particular field, as well as others that offer the chance to start a new life in the country looking after an olive plantation, or a career as a butler in a Galician country house; or perhaps a career as an extra in a film or an advertisement; there are companies looking for people with gray hair to try out dyes, as well as others who will pay you to carry out surveys on service levels in restaurants and hotels.
The internet is, for many, the best way to find a new job, but Maribel says that the web can also be intimidating. "It is very impersonal, and you have to accept that a lot of companies simply do not bother to reply. There are thousands of job sites, and some of them charge. It isn't easy getting the most out of the internet."
In their small town close to Seville, Manuel and Natividad know that the future offers little hope. Their children, back at home, sleep on a mattress on the living room floor - "I'd let my daughter-in-law sleep in our bed, but she won't have it," - she says. They are now dependent on food vouchers, have stopped paying into the Social Security system, and have had to remortgage their house. "We don't even have enough money to make calls to look for work," says Natividad, sobbing.