The Big Society – nice idea, but completely irrelevant in this time of economic crisis. Or is it?
According to a fascinating report in the Wall Street Journal, grassroots voluntary action is playing a vital role in Spain, one of the most crisis-ridden economies in the western world. First of all, some context:
- “Today, workers 16 to 24 face an astronomical 53.3% unemployment rate. For 25- to 34-year-olds, the rate is 27%. It tapers off for older workers, who can be costly to lay off under Spanish labor law.
- “Half of the young unemployed have been seeking work for at least a year, according to Spain's national statistics bureau, and the few jobs that are available are often low-paying, temporary positions.”
One interviewee describes a generation “living off their parents until they can afford to live off their children.” But it’s not all despair:
- “As Europe's leaders struggle with a five-year-old economic crunch that has saddled Spain with the industrialized world's highest jobless rate, young Spaniards are increasingly embracing such bottom-up self-help initiatives to cope. The diverse measures—some commonly associated with rural or disaster-zone economies—supplement a public safety net that is fraying under government austerity programs.”
An example of such of an initiative is ‘time banking’:
- “Even though she's one of millions of young, unemployed Spaniards, 22-year-old Silvia Martín takes comfort in knowing that her bank is still standing behind her. It's not a lending institution, but rather a time bank whose nearly 400 members barter their services by the hour.
- “…Ms. Martín, who doesn't own a car and can't afford taxis, has relied on other time-bank members to give her lifts around town for her odd jobs and errands, as well as to help with house repairs. In return, she has cared for members' elderly relatives, organized children's parties and even hauled boxes for a member moving to a new house.”
The beauty of time banking is that it allows the unemployed to make use of the one resource they have in abundance – their time – without the need for the things that they don’t currently have i.e. money and access to the mainstream labour market. Furthermore, compared to any favour that immediate friends and family might to for one another, the range of possible exchanges is much wider.
Unfortunately, not everyone is happy with this re-invention of the economic rules:
- “Some economists worry that the rise of such informal systems of economic exchange is pushing more of Spain's economy underground—out of the view of regulators and tax collectors…
- “…income received…often goes undeclared, therefore depriving the government of tax revenue. Social currencies and time banks also preclude taking on debt…”
Lawks-a-mercy! Less regulation, less tax and less debt – how on earth will the Spanish economy cope with that?
In any case, right now the alternative to these “informal systems” is not regular employment, but the crushing, de-humanising reality of long-term unemployment. So, let’s hope the Spanish big society is allowed to rewire the failing Spanish economy from the bottom-up.