I have been debating with my Spanish followers on Twitter about why Spain has the highest unemployment rates of all developed nations – 21% for the population as a whole and 46% youth unemployment. To put Spain´s unemployment into perspective, the EU´s average rate of unemployment is less than half of Spain´s.
In my view, Spain´s high unemployment is as much the product of poor financial/ investment decisions (over investment in real estate) as it is one of the country´s culture. The main cultural weakness of Spaniards, and indeed Latin Americans in general, is to take little or no ownership of their problems, instead blaming others for their shortcomings. Of course, this kind of culture also has its positive side: countries in which people tend to blame others for their problems usually have low suicide rates and a general positive outlook on life. The flip side is that this attitude is very hard to change and it is not conducive to a country reinventing itself in the face of failed economic strategies. This can help explain why Spain is so much behind the EU when it comes to unemployment. Spain needs to reinvent itself, and in order to do that, a culture of self responsibility is essential.
To me, if Spain has such high unemployment rates, it is because the Spanish government, Spanish entrepreneurs and business leaders and Spanish workers are uncompetitive. I say this after having hired thousands of Spaniards and having built Jazztel, Ya.com and Fon in Spain. Yes, there are responsible and hard working Spanish government employees, imaginative and hard driven Spanish entrepreneurs and highly ethical Spanish workers, but they are less common to find than in Germany, for example.
When you talk to Spanish people, they will quickly agree that Spanish politicians are mediocre, that Spanish “empresarios” are “unos chorizos” or scumbags but few would agree that there is something wrong with the way that Spanish people think, organize themselves and work.
Unfortunately, the average politician, businessperson and employee are all to blame for Spain´s poor economic condition. They are to blame as a group, as a culture. This is a nation where one in five are out of work and where one out of three young people have no future – this needs to be fixed. But this can’t be fixed if the average Spanish person does not realize that they are both part of the problem and an essential part of the solution. What is common here is to believe that Spain is the way it is because of a few who have somehow kidnapped the country into perennial underperformance in terms of unemployment.
Spain is a country with huge potential, but low entrepreneurship. The average Spaniard focuses energy and attention on old, ailing industries like infrastructure and real estate, and banks tend to only lend for these activities. Spaniards don’t see the risk in borrowing the equivalent to five times their annual salary to buy a home. This means that many are tied to mortgages that will sink them into debt for life, because of this, they can´t even move to where there is work.
Spaniards are among the Europeans who live the longest lives, yet they are the ones who call in sick to work the most. In Spain there is a yet to be measured but enormous underground economy, with a very large number of workers who collect both unemployment insurance and a regular salary. Tax cheating is rampant. Moreover, Spaniards love colossal and useless infrastructure projects. They vote for politicians who give them something, even if it has no practical use. These are the same politicians who approved colossal public works like the T4 terminal, a $10bn project. They spent public money building airports that no one uses and roads that nobody takes. Take the Castellón Airport, for example, built at a cost of $213m but that still hasn´t received a single flight. Meanwhile, Germany and other European countries gave Spain gifts of billions through the EU and a lot of this undeserved money was misused.
Will Spain´s problems be fixed? I certainly hope so. I am an immigrant to this country, by now a Spanish citizen who built three significant companies here and have five Spanish children. Spaniards are now saying: “el problema no es la crisis, es el sistema” or, the problem is not the crisis, it’s the system. But this “system” works for the Netherlands, Germany and many other new EU countries such as Poland. My answer is, “el problema no es el sistema, somos nosotros.” The problem is not the system, we are the problem.
Follow Martin Varsavsky on Twitter: twitter.com/martinvars