Austerity Diasporas – Households in Crisis: Austerity, Migration and Family in Portuguese London

In today’s post Lisa Rodan introduces a series of publications on her ongoing PhD research into how Portuguese migrants understand their lives and experiences in relation to the political and social changes wrought by the 2008 financial crisis and the austerity measures that followed. For the past 12 months Lisa has been carrying out ethnographic interviews with university educated, Portuguese people in their 20s, 30s and early 40s in London, supplemented by time spent in Portugal where she has been lucky to meet some of their families. In a series of posts Lisa will share her initial analysis of some key themes arising from her fieldwork data, which she began to collect in June 2016 just after the Brexit vote. These encounters have ranged from one-off interviews to valued friendships and time spent with each other’s families. The content of the series will be a very close reading of  fieldwork notes in their raw form. Lisa welcomes any input and suggestions from interested parties.

Today’s blog, the first in a four-part series, will focus on social changes in Portugal leading up to the 2011 austerity measures. I will continue next month by reviewing how migration has shaped Portuguese history and what makes this latest wave different. Part three will look at London and how Portuguese migrants exist within it as a changing, global city in a time of European-wide austerity. Finally, I will discuss predictions for life after Brexit and how my research participants view recent positive changes in Portugal in terms of their own futures.

The following blog post is the first in the series on austerity and family – on the theme of “the changing role of the family / state in Portugal”.

“Things were going well, there was so much to do in Portugal, people were positive about their lives, their futures and then the crisis happened.” Carlos, 45

Carlos, 45, Lisbon, teacher turned IT consultant. Cecilia, 26, Vila Real, nurse. Sofia, 35, Porto, scientist[1]. Different worlds and stories but there is one thing they can all agree on- that they are a product of a ‘golden age’ of social and economic expansion in Portugal throughout the 1980s and 90s that no longer exists. These are the children of Europe, making their way in a very different world from the one their parents aspired to on their behalf. This was a world defined by prosperity, with education- via a proliferation of new universities all over the country- at its centre. The graduates of this expanded educational system form the backbone of a new middle class who found themselves with no place in the Portugal during the first decade of the 21st century.

Changing expectations is the key concept here. Values had transformed from the days of the Salazar dictatorship (1926-1974), and in the years following Portugal’s 1986 admission to the EU. Education was the key to an exciting new world where, for the first time, a ‘good life’ was accessible within Portugal, as long as one worked and studied hard for it. A long tradition of migration in search of a better standard of living, albeit through low paying jobs, was being turned on its head in favour of a prosperous future at home.

This new middle class, many of them the children of migrants who had returned to Portugal during the ‘golden years’, saw their expectations for a life different to that of their parents diminish before their eyes when austerity measures crippled the Portuguese economy in 2011. The industries worst hit were represented by thousands of unemployed graduates in nursing, teaching and construction- graduates who would now join the traditionally less educated migrant groups in seeking their fortune elsewhere.

The older ones I’ve spoken to are still angry. They remember what life was like before, although their anger has significantly diminished in the six years since the hardest repercussions of austerity were felt. However, it is the under 40s who have crossed my path more, and they define their experience as fleeing the prospect rather than experience of unemployment or stagnant careers. Expectations have once again changed in the ten years following the financial crash and again and again I am confronted by stoicism, a confidence in their ability as Europeans to find a way around the challenges of Brexit, but most of all a hope for the future rooted in trust in the same educational capital that prompted them to seek a world away from family and friends back home.

These graduates in their 20s and 30s encompass the values of a generation raised with Erasmus exchanges, travel opportunities and an affinity for the English language that, they explain, contrasts them to their parents, whose clinging to job security above all else is alien to what they have been brought up to believe. Nevertheless, the two sets of values are inexorably linked, not just through the obvious affective family bonds but through ongoing support networks. These networks are both financial, allowing young people to undertake internships, language classes or simply the space to save and figure out what to do next, and emotional, communication technology offering an opportunity for transnational connectivity in a way hitherto unexperienced by previous generations of migrants.

But what are the main differences between the EU generation in London and their parents, the children of the dictatorship? The former overwhelmingly present their experience as providing hope, meaning and pride through success (or the potential to succeed) in a career which is both internationally transferable and offers recognition of the individual’s talents. The irony at work here is the root of such hopes in the earlier prosperity wrought by neoliberal expansion which could only temporarily mask the inability of the economic and political framework of periphery countries to support the excesses of global finance and failures of the monetary union. What we are seeing now are the social repercussions of expectations of access to global consumerist comforts and existential fulfilment without the need to migrate. For many, this is now only attainable through planning a future outside Portugal.

Those Portuguese who recall pre-EU days defined by lack of both consumerism and the welfare state claim the younger generation don’t know the truth of how hard life can be and undervalue security. Those who have migrated and remained abroad describe their home country lovingly but as being devoid of opportunities befitting their qualifications and experience- a country mired in a system based on nepotism that undermined ‘EU values’ of efficiency, prosperity and merit. The young people I have spoken to refer to a favours system based on pre-revolution mentalities where contacts, rather than ability, are the key to getting ahead and have led to a country stuck in the past, where aspirational and intelligent young people migrate, leaving the same old names in charge.

Lisa Rodan is a third year PhD student in Social Anthropology at the University of Kent where she is working with three colleagues on an ESRC funded project entitled Household Survival in Crisis: Austerity and Relatedness in Greece and Portugal.

[1] All names have been changed

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