Young Catalans wanted a country. They’ll settle for a steady paycheck.
Once the vanguard of a roiling independence movement, Catalonia's youth have started to ask what's in it for them.
Daniel Beizsley teaches Criminology at the Open University of Catalonia.
BARCELONA — Catalan independence leaders have been willing to face batons, prison and exile in the belief that they are building a better country for their grandchildren. Unfortunately, what their grandchildren say they want is a better job and cheaper rent.
The independence movement — long associated with Catalans old enough to recall the Franco dictatorship — has started to show a younger face in recent years. Students as young as high-school age bore the brunt of the police violence during the 2019 demonstrations against harsh prison sentences handed out to independence leaders.
Lately however, among young people, doubts about the cause have been creeping in. If trend holds, it will spell the end of the independence movement. Support for independence among people aged 18-24 in the region was 60 percent as recently as 2014. Now surveys show it has fallen to 39 percent among the same group. The movement’s leaders can longer take the support of young Catalans for granted.
There’s a chance the tide could change again. But if it doesn’t and independence leaders have lost the future generation for good, then the movement is probably over in any serious sense.
The movement’s drift toward populism and identity politics appears to be alienating younger people. Earlier in the 21st century, as support for Catalan secession rose sharply, an increasing number of people in the region began describing themselves as Catalan — and not Spanish. The shift was a marked change from the generation reared in the late 20th century, post-dictatorship period, when dual Catalan and Spanish identities typically held sway.
Polls show support for independence rises with the number of people identifying as “only Catalan” (a group in which over 90 percent is in favor of secession) and “more Catalan than Spanish.” But recent survey evidence suggests the number of young Catalans who see themselves this way is falling.
In 2014, 28 percent of young Catalans described themselves as “only Catalan.” By 2021 this has slumped to 19.5% percent. In 2014, less than a third expressed a dual identity — feeling equally Spanish and Catalan. Today just under half do so, the most common response in polls.
The tumble of support among Catalan youth contrasts sharply to the situation in Scotland, where support for independence has reached 70 percent for the same age range. In Catalonia, the movement appears to be following in the steps of Quebec, where new generations of young people have lost interest in sovereignty, engaging instead with issues relating to work, race and the environment.
Young people gravitate toward idealistic social movements, but they’re not fools. The increasingly confrontational line adopted by Catalonia’s independence parties, scaffolded with historical grievances and identity issues, doesn’t speak to most younger Catalans, who have been locked out of the employment and housing markets for a generation.
Facing a 41 percent youth unemployment rate even before COVID-19, younger Catalans are being told by independence leaders that the only path to stability is to have their own country. That’s starting to ring hollow for a cohort that’s trying to begin their lives and are all too aware they’ve received almost nothing in return for years of support for independence.
Nothing is ever fixed in Catalan politics. Support for independence could make a return among young people, reaffirming the independence movement’s raison d’etre. But for this to happen, secessionist governments must have something of substance to offer the young, beyond protracted social conflict.
So far, they haven’t offered much, and they may be running out of time.