Portugal recently reached a staggering 15% unemployment. The very night this information became public, the Portuguese Minister for the Economy, Álvaro Santos Pereira, went on national television to justify how in one year excessive austerity cost 3% of the population their jobs. The trick employed is not new among the Portuguese right-wing – unemployment has been growing for the past 10 years, they say, making this a lost decade for Portugal.
This could not be further from the truth. For instance, early school leaving halved between 1998 and 2011. In 2000, only 24% of students had home internet access. In 2009, this number grew to over 91%. This led the OECD to calls reforms in the Portuguese educational system “impressive”. While this is only one aspect of development (others could be highlighted), it is nevertheless an important one.
In spite of these progressive reforms, a handicap remains. In Europe, on average, 70% of the population has completed secondary education. In Portugal, this figure is still at 30%. This handicap can be traced back very far into the turbulent Portuguese history. However, one period in Portuguese history stands out for not only not taking advantage of extraordinary political stability but also for missing the window of opportunity of the post-WW2 Golden Age – the ‘New State’ dictatorship (1933-1974) led by Salazar. Salazar believed that “an educated population is ungovernable”. Rural poverty and a lack of secondary schools meant that primary education was often the only education afforded to the Portuguese youth. The result of deliberate lack of investment in education was that illiteracy still reached two thirds of the population aged 15 or above in 1960.
Education (or rather lack of it) has been widely documented and accepted as an obstacle to economic development. Portugal is no exception. The supposed difficulty in finding qualified technicians for the AutoEuropa car factory in Portugal is a situation most Portuguese entrepreneurs sympathize with. But the little/poor education of our business leaders and entrepreneurs presents perhaps an even greater problem, being at the root of the lack of Portuguese established multinational firms. Portuguese entrepreneurs are among the least qualified in Europe: only 9% enjoyed the privilege of higher education, as opposed to an average 25% at a European level; while 82% of Portuguese entrepreneurs attended 9 or fewer years of schooling, only one in four average European entrepreneurs share their educational footing.
Time alone can rid Portugal of its ‘qualifications deficit’ and allow it to tap fully into the vast reserves of Portuguese ingenuity – the same one that discovered India, Brazil and swathes of Africa. Yet, the old ghost of emigration has returned to haunt this seaside nation. Since 2007 emigration has jumped above 100,000, a massive increase compared to the 35,000 who left the country in 2000. With austerity ravaging the Portuguese economy, and the government tearing down our social rights, these numbers are bound to increase dramatically.
The conjuncture affects youth particularly dramatically. The official youth unemployment figure of 35.5% hides a wider reality of underemployment and involuntary inactivity. It should come as no surprise that emigration is now under serious consideration by swaths of young Portuguese. A recent inquiry by Student Unions found that 69% of responding students wished to emigrate. The government, including the Prime Minister, has repeatedly called on the unemployed young to “show more effort” and “leave their comfort zone” by looking for work abroad. No rise in remittances can repair the harm done by the emerging ‘brain drain’ – by the absence of the most educated among what is Portugal’s best and most qualified generation thus far.
The situation for Portugal is growing increasingly dire. Addiction to austerity has put more than half of the population at risk of poverty. A new generation is coming of age – determined to build a life for themselves. To deny them the right to do so in their own country is criminal. Not all hope is lost, but unless we address the needs of our generation for a future, Portugal will not lose only a decade, but a whole generation. Perhaps then the Minister will be happy to have achieved far more than all his predecessors.