Divorce statistics from Spain’s National Statistics Office are, at first glance, alarming. The figures show that in the Canary Islands the rate of 3 divorces per thousand of the population is the highest in Spain, where the divorce rate has fallen by 10 per cent since the time of the last survey.
Given that, for many, these islands appear to be an island paradise that draws many Northern Europeans to the islands, begs the question “What has gone wrong for these couples?” I can only guess that most of these breakdowns will be in the younger age group and are linked to the stresses caused by a lack of jobs, homes and a bleak future.
It is traditional for Canarians to marry when they are young. Many are still not out of their teenage years when the pressure of many overbearing families and the Church forces them to take their wedding vows. It is not unusual to see, what appears at first, to be a brother and sister taking a baby out in the pram or playing with a toddler on the beach. It is only when chatting to these ‘brothers and sisters’ that we discover that they are in fact husband and wife and that the child is their own.
Canarians are struggling with nearly 30 per cent unemployment, and this has hit the youth particularly hard. One in every three unemployed are under 30 years old leading them to be dubbed "the lost generation". Statistics indicate that more than half of those in their thirties are still not financially independent and rely on their parents for support.
Needless to say, many of these young couples do not have the financial resources to rent a flat or to start a mortgage and, as a consequence, they are forced to live with their in-laws. This brings its own pressures on any couple. In the past, this has meant that grandmother has taken on the burden of raising the child and later providing after-school care, whilst the young parents are able to finish their education or start a career, but times have changed. The pressures of living within an extended family for far longer than in the past, and the inability of obtaining a home of their own, places unbearable pressures upon many families.
The problems have become more acute in recent years with the influx of expats moving to these islands. The best and most affordable properties have been snapped up by expats, forcing house prices, goods and services to increase as a consequence. It is an anomaly that despite the popularity of these islands as a holiday destination, they remain the bastions of unemployment, low pay, long hours and a reliance on ‘black money’ rather than secure contracts offering a living wage to local people.
The islands’ government has attempted in recent years to provide affordable housing for young families, but the supply and availability of such properties has been slow and requires a steady income, which many young couples do not have. As many of us will remember from the UK, affordable housing, starter homes and other such well-meaning schemes do not remain affordable housing for very long.
We are often told that Spain is a very family-orientated society, and so it is - far more than many would consider realistic or desirable in the UK. In Spain, it is customary for all members of the family to take responsibility for, and to look after, the young, elderly and sick members of their family. In the Costas and the Canary Islands, residential homes for the elderly are few, with the exception of several run by nuns for the elderly with no families.
Island living, although idyllic in many ways, also brings other pressures that are often not realised. Island living often creates, by definition, an insular view of life. Despite attempts by schools to widen their pupils’ experiences, many have never left these islands. Whereas school leavers in Peninsular Spain and other parts of Europe attend universities far from home, gaining rich experiences and meeting a wide variety of other people, as they complete their formal education, many Canarians study locally and have never left the islands. I recall putting the question of travel to Peninsular Spain and further afield to one young Canarian in his thirties. His reply was, “Why should we? We have everything that we need here.” However, it is this insularity of knowing maybe only the people that we went to school with, or those from the same town or village that creates its own problems.
Hopefully, these recent statistics will provide opportunities for some soul-searching amongst clerics, local and national politicians. The statistics will also provide useful fodder for university researchers and the like. Hopefully, society too will look seriously at the pressures that young Canarian families currently face and take action. However, in these days of Covid, recession and financial cutbacks, I somehow doubt that anything positive will happen to address an obvious problem.
© Barrie Mahoney
From the 'Letters from the Atlantic' series by Barrie Mahoney
Living the Dream: ISBN 978-0992767198