Yesterday I was doing some shopping on the way home. I had gone to the local supermarket with my headphones on and was looking to buy some dinner.
I noticed this woman fellow shopper as I went to the canned vegetables isle. I didn’t give her much thought since she looked very unfriendly and, quite frankly, these days I have zero time for unfriendly-looking people.
I went about my business and stood in line to pay for a few minutes (it still amazes me how in Europe cash tills are usually kept at minimum with huge lines at any one time on any one register).
Suddenly, the angry woman in black rushed out of the supermarket with her huge over-the-shoulder bag.
The cashier was too busy and didn’t see her leave. The security guard was nowhere to be seen (maybe he was on a break). And the people in line in front of me where too preoccupied with having to wait for so long to pay.
So what is my gripe? Well, when I had last seen her, her hands were filled with items. When she saw me perhaps she got defensive that I had come to her isle when she was about to do some creative ‘discounting’ in her favor.
I did see her a couple more times in the store, and at all times she had her hands full.
So when she rushed out, I could only think the worse. Especially after, as I was leaving, the security guard came asking the cashier about her.
So why is this particular ‘potential’ shoplifter of any interest?
First of all, this woman was, in appearance anyway, middle class. Almost trendy. She was well dressed and had an elegant manner to her.
Second of all, she was old. Maybe early to mid sixties. Although I know that people of all ages shoplift, it is true that she went against type. Middle class elderly women in Spain do not, as a general rule, shoplift.
Especially not food.
But here it was, the real and ugly face of Spain’s current economic crisis.
The media in Spain, and I find this surprising, continuously go on and on about youth unemployment. With good reason, it is true.
However, Spain suffers from a much more modern (yet antiquated in its inception) malaise.
Unlike the US, or other more forward-thinking countries, in Spain, once you are past the age of 40, you may as well forget about working.
In the labor market you are pretty much invisible and unemployable.
And no, I am not exaggerating.
Last year, about 40% of people unemployed in Spain were over the age of 40. The number is higher for those over 50.
It is true that, generally, in Spain most employers prefer to hire younger and cheaper workers than those with greater experience.
The first time I saw an advert which stated very explicitly “People over the age of 40 need not apply” I was shocked. That was 5 years ago, but those adverts have not stopped popping up.
And yes, in theory, Spanish law forbids age discrimination. But this is one of those instances where the law is much more advanced than the society it is meant to serve.
Whereas in the UK such adverts would create an outrage, here they merely reflect the current state of affairs.
And I have another example. Years ago a friend of mine from Barcelona had just gotten back from the US.
He is not exactly anti-American, but he does have that slight strange superiority complex which most Europeans seem to don whenever it comes to American culture and American practices and things they don’t know anything about.
He was telling us at a bar about his trip. About how wonderful it all was, how cheap things are in the US, and about how, in America, old people are exploited.
“I went to Wal-Mart, and the guy bagging my shopping was an old guy! Why do Americans exploit the elderly like that?”
Most people kept quiet and thought about it; some said it was typical of American capitalism and were slightly outraged; and some laughed. Where my friend saw exploitation I saw respite from life and poverty.
And then I said that unlike in Spain, where old people are not even hired, at least in the US the elderly are not discarded entirely, and they are allowed to remain productive if they wish to be. Yes I know that in the US this is a problem too, but not as deep as it can be here.
My friend was not entirely convinced. Neither were the others, although some did say that, in this instance, the US was more advanced than Spain in this matter, and that Spain had “a long way to go still”.
But you see, in Spain most old people don’t work not because they don’t want to, they don’t work because they are either retired, or they can't find a job.
Of course, Spain being Spain, the family plays a very large part in this scenario.
Most retired people in Spain have a state pension, and many financial benefits, however most does not mean all.
When that happens, the family tends to fill in the gaps which the State leaves open (and there’s many of those).
Although access to free health is guaranteed, many other things are not, and that is where most people rely on their families.
For example, it is not at all uncommon for married couples to take in their elderly parents to live with them. Less so these days, especially in large cities like Madrid or Barcelona.
But it is not uncommon, nor unheard of, nor strange. Nor is it strange to go on vacation with the entire family, grandparents included.
Personally I find this one of the more endearing traits of Spanish society.
There was a story in the papers a couple of years ago which talked about an elderly couple, one of whom (the wife) was blind, which had been made homeless when the building they lived in was about to be refurbished. They had been living there for over 40 years.
“There” was a one room studio apartment the walls of which could be touched at the same time if you stretched out both your arms.
In Spain this is known as “infra-vivienda”, or substandard housing. Unfortunately they are not the only couple living in such conditions. In this instance, social services came to take the couple in, but I was shocked that they had lived under those conditions for so long.
On the one hand you could blame social services, but on the other you can also blame these people’s culture.
It is unsightly to ask for help, or complain publicly. Or at least it is for their generation. Younger people do complain more, though there is not much of a culture of asking for help.
Ironically, there is a culture of demanding a particular right.
People here may demand to be housed because, believe it or not, the Spanish Constitution says it is their right, but that does not mean they will ask for help. I don't know if I make the distinction clear...
This I usually put down to their rights being trampled for years during the Franco dictatorship.
So when that elderly woman left with, probably, some shopping in her bag, it dawned on me just how bad things are starting to get.
And although Spain’s economy is much larger than Greece’s (and Portugal, Ireland and Iceland put together), if things get worse, then people’s lives will suffer because of it.
Although there is a large underground economy in the country, it is obvious that not everyone participates in it.
That lady last night did not seem to be benefitting from it much...