Who Wants to Be a Thousandaire?
Spain’s “mileurista” generation is a portent of things to come for the global economy.
Rarely does a single word capture the zeitgeist of an entire generation. Rarer still does it have a birth certificate. But in August 2005, Spain’s leading newspaper, El País, published a letter to the editor titled “Yo soy ‘mileurista’” or “I am a ‘mileurista.’” Mileurista was a clever neologism to describe people taking home only about 1,000 euros (roughly $1,200) a month. Sixteen years later, what once seemed an aberration has become a depressingly ingrained feature of Spanish life.
“The word came to me after conversations with friends,” said Carolina Alguacil, who coined the term when she wrote that letter. “We were graduates around 25 years old, who moved from one temporary job or an internship to another, sharing a flat in Barcelona in the midst of a real estate bubble. For my circle, all well-educated, well-prepared people, things didn’t work out—it was about the frustration of being perennial students.”
To her surprise, the letter was published, and the term took off like wildfire. Within a decade, the Real Academia Española, gatekeepers of the Spanish language, included it in its authoritative official dictionary.
Alguacil may have coined “mileurista” during an unprecedented economic euphoria in Spain—riding 10 years of annual GDP growth around 3 percent, the country was the poster child of the euro’s success—but it came into its own during the worst economic crisis in 80 years. Three years after Alguacil’s letter to the editor, the Spanish housing bubble burst, Lehman Brothers failed, and the great financial crisis began, ushering in more than a lost decade for her and the young people who came after.
In 2008, the year the crisis began, the median net income for workers ages 20 to 24 was just under the mileurista threshold at 949 euros a month; those aged 25 to 29 reached just past it, to earn 1,245 euros a month. (And those were the lucky ones with jobs: Youth unemployment in Spain before the crisis was 24.5 percent, the highest in the European Union.)
By 2017, the median income had fallen to 841 euros for the 20 to 24 cohort, and under 1,200 euros for those ages 25 to 29—without even taking into account years of inflation that further eroded earning power during the crisis. If the term mileurista seemed a lament in 2005, it has now become almost a bitter aspiration. Many young people would kill to land a steady job paying that much every month.
“[The term] is still valid because of its connotation of earning a low salary in an urban context with difficult access to housing, which prevents young people from pursuing a normal life trajectory,” said José Fernández-Albertos of the Spanish National Research Council. The average age at which young Spaniards leave the nest is just shy of 30 years—among the oldest in Europe. That means a later start in forming families, which translates to lower birth rates.
It didn’t seem destined to turn out this way. In 2005, expectations in Spain were high. Crawling out of decades of dictatorship, Spain saw itself as a fully European country for the first time in centuries. Mileuristas, the first generation to come of age under the banner of European Union membership, boasted plenty of highly educated college graduates who were weaned on low-cost flights all over Europe and Erasmus programs to study abroad. But they faced several intractable obstacles.
First, the older generation—those who came of age right when former dictator Francisco Franco died in 1975—locked down the good and stable jobs for decades, blocking opportunities for many who came after them. Those born in 1950 didn’t retire until 2015. But that generation, who secured their posts thanks to the country’s thirst for highly educated graduates, also seared their children with the notion that a college degree is a guarantee of a good job, saddling the next generation with a surplus of graduates and an excess of opportunities.
The job market was—and is—a second obstacle. Labor law protected legacy workers with generous and nearly ironclad severance packages, which made firing workers onerous and very expensive. To make the service economy work, legislation encouraged temporary jobs with no protection. The consequence was Europe’s most dramatically two-tiered labor market, where the well-protected enjoyed stable jobs more or less for life while the younger generation staggered from one temporary gig to another. Even in 2005, at the height of Spain’s economic growth, more than half of the workers under age 30 had temporary contracts, which often included no paid time off.
Finally, Spain’s housing bubble made the American boom-and-bust look modest. By 2007, on the cusp of the collapse, average housing prices were nearly three times higher than they were a decade before despite an unprecedented building boom. Data suggests that buying a house at the time was twice as out of reach in Spain as in the overheated U.S. market.
After more than a decade of economic crises, the scenario is even bleaker. The median wage for younger workers has fallen, while temporary work has continued to climb to Europe’s highest level. In 2019, 56 percent of young employees held only a temporary job. Even for those with a college degree, 1 in 4 under the age of 29 are unemployed, twice the rate as when Alguacil wrote her letter to the editor.
So it is little wonder that her term has become entrenched in culture, politics, and society. There are cookbooks just for mileuristas, filled with recipes promising something like mom’s cooking for a few euros a plate. Travel agencies cater to mileuristas with expansive visions and little to spend. In a particularly cruel irony, banks pay to show up in Google after searches for “hipotecas para mileuristas,” or mortgages for mileuristas, even when the term itself was born of the utter inability to ever pay for one.
In 2015, the center-right People’s Party approved a tax reform whose main policy was to exempt those earning under 12,000 euros a year—essentially mileuristas—from income tax. In 2019, the center-left coalition government approved another labor reform that raised the minimum wage to 900 euros a month, having earlier promised to reach the mythical benchmark of 1,000 euros.
“I think the term is now more universal and applies to a bigger share of the population,” Alguacil said. “The context is different, but the background is not.” In the gig economy, being a mileurista can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, Fernández-Albertos argued: “Workers want to live in big cities; assuming the short time span of a job, they don’t want to be too far from opportunities and connections. It’s something structural.”
And that was before the coronavirus pandemic—and the associated lockdowns and decline in tourism—dealt the Spanish economy one of the worst gut punches in its history, hammering economic growth and sending unemployment spiking. That’s shattered mileuristas’ already scaled-back expectations.
“They are more realistic, and they may be okay with making 1,000 euros a month as long as they have minimum stability,” Alguacil said. “But the pandemic has been a huge blow for 30-somethings who had finally managed to keep on working for a few years in a row.”
And as Fernández-Albertos notes, the phenomenon is not limited to Spain. Mileuristas were simply forerunners of the now-familiar laments of European and U.S. youth, struggling with dead-end, low-paying jobs and the impossibly high cost of housing. For Spanish mileuristas, like their counterparts around the world, today’s crises aren’t an aberration but all they’ve ever known.
“My generation was the last one which expected a better standard of living than their parents. It didn’t work out that way,” Alguacil said. “The new generations … they are crisis natives. They have been living with crisis since they were students.”