Austerity Diasporas: Brexit, Portugal and Looking to the Future

With the following post Lisa Rodan completes the four-part series on “Austerity Diasporas”, which is related to her ongoing PhD research onthe experience of Portuguese migrants affected by the 2008 crash and ensuing austerity. The first post focussed on social changes in Portugal leading up to the 2011 austerity measures. In the second post, Lisa described how migration has shaped Portuguese history up to today. Part three dealt with the experience of Portuguese migrants in London under austerity. Finally, in part four, Lisa discusses the predictions of her research participants for life after Brexit.

The Brexit vote gave an unexpected jump-start to my PhD fieldwork. I had just begun identifying potential respondents for a year-long anthropological examination of how the 2011 austerity measures around Southern Europe had affected the outlook, identity and long-term social imagination of millennial Portuguese migrants in London. They were a group that would eventually become defined within my research by their access to higher education during the more prosperous 1990s.

After the initial shock that it had actually happened, the attitude amongst many of my interlocutors was defiant. “What are they going to do, chuck us all out?” said Mariana, 26, a nurse, “The economy would collapse. They can’t do without us.” Jose, 32, an engineer, was not worried either. “For people like me, there are always lots of opportunities. If they are so short-sighted to make us leave, I’ll go to Germany. But they won’t. I don’t know about outside of London but here at least I know we’ll be OK.”

Not everyone felt as confident though, and the feelings of betrayal caused by the vote were often expressed with resentment and suspicion. Olivia, a 34-year-old waitress who trained as a teacher in Portugal, grimly welcomed Brexit as a, “Necessary evil to keep out those who come for benefits, layabouts… unlike us who have come here to work and contribute.” Her words were echoed by those who resented the harsh living conditions they were exposed to in London. They framed Brexit as a necessary change to a status quo which enabled exploitation of people like them. For Guilherme, 32, an ambitious potential businessman who was feeling burnt-out after two years of working in various catering businesses, “Politics is a sham,” and he welcomed a shake-up of the whole system.  “I came here to work hard and make something of myself,” he told me bitterly, “and am treated worse than a dog. There are too many people here and something has to change.” Marco, a 39 year-old teaching assistant, is determined to stay until he gets the experience that will allow him to establish himself in a permanent teaching career but is resentful of the decision for symbolic reasons. “Portugal is Britain’s oldest ally, right? And I come here, the Spanish, the Italians, we respect the culture, we have a common, western culture. Why is it us they want to stop coming? Me, I never asked for benefits in my life, there’s something wrong, isn’t there? Rather than asking us all to leave, they should stop the benefits, make the people work!”

Over the course of my fieldwork these initial reactions to Brexit became part of a wider reflection from my respondents on plans for the future. Many started to increasingly refer to Portugal as no longer a ‘country in crisis’ but rather somewhere with potential. Returning home was presented as a ‘lifestyle choice’ and a chance for a ‘good life’ with frequent references to accepting and adapting to a new way of being. “People are a bit humbler now” says Andreia, 35, a former pharmacist turned medical student in Porto. “People’s expectations of how things ‘should’ be done are different, it’s no longer go to university, get a job, have a family. People have changed their mentality and learned to adapt to the way things are now. Especially those whose degrees saturated the labour market, like me.”

Part of this ‘learning to adapt’ is harnessing new sources of income generation which will enable a ‘good life’ in Portugal. The intertwined pillars of the post-crisis world in the Portuguese context, from my respondents’ point of view, are digitalisation of careers and tourism. These are dominated

by educated members of the millennial generation and a global outlook achieved through their experience abroad. Ines, 33, a nurse, plans to go back to Portugal but not to work in healthcare. “Long-term I want to change, something with tourism. That’s where the future is. The hospital I worked before, noooo, never. Terrible place! My idea is I’d like to get a two bed flat and rent one bed out on Airbnb. But I have to figure out how.” Like many of my respondents, she had multiple success stories of people who had done just that and achieved the perfect balance of a salary that enabled a global lifestyle and local images of a ‘good life’ represented by the weather, food, and cultural and family connections of Portugal. A friend of a friend, she told me, had quit his prestigious banking job in London four years earlier and moved back to Porto with his wife and baby. He now had a business running food tours, supplemented by freelance financial consultancy. “You see? That’s the dream!”

Who is able to access this dream depends as much on professional and educational capital as on the changing nature of working practices. The digitalisation of a transnational ‘gig economy’ in Portugal has its roots in a generation who consider themselves ‘European’ as well as ‘Portuguese’. They have experience abroad and are now returning wielding their bilingualism and globally recognised skill sets, which allow them to stand out from the crowd. Within such experiences and imaginations are a whole spectrum of potential success stories, ranging from teaching Portuguese via skype, to online jewellery business and international brand consultancy.

The Portuguese cultural imagination has long honoured the trait of ‘making do’ via the concept of ‘desenrascanço’– which loosely translates as “the act of disentangling yourself from a difficult situation using available means.” The Portugueseness of such responses to its’ local crisis is nevertheless embedded in a post-austerity global political economy where reduced state services have placed the onus on the individual to engage in work which can be simultaneously empowering and precarious. Offering digital services allows freedom of movement whilst at the same time removing long-term stability. Whether this diversion of domestic work practices in Portugal will exacerbate existing inequality amongst those who had the opportunity to leave and are now returning and those who had no choice but to stay remains to be seen.

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.

 

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