Estudias o trabajas?" When young Spaniards gather around the bars and patios, that's their traditional icebreaker line: "You study or work?" In the past year, it's become almost mandatory to answer, with a self-effacing smirk: "Nini."
It is half a joke, for nini is a way of saying "neither-nor," and NINI is the Spanish government acronym for "Not in education or employment" - that is, lost to the economy.
But it's not really a joke, because now almost everyone is NINI. The under-30 unemployment rate in Spain has just hit 44 per cent, twice the adult rate. Italy also has passed the 40 per cent mark, and Greece has gone even further. If you count all the people who've given up looking, it means the number of people between 20 and 30 who have any form of employment in these countries is something like one in five.
An entire European generation is leaving school to discover they have no place in the economy.
Most will do all right, eventually - a period of low income is manageable, sometimes even noble, when you don't have kids or life obligations - but when they finally enter the work force, they'll almost certainly discover that the crisis has permanently altered the nature of working life in Europe.
I half understand what they're experiencing. I, too, left school in the midst of a devastating recession, when full-time jobs were simply non-existent. Canada, lest we forget, was in a fiscal and employment position as serious in the early 1990s as countries such as Spain face today: Its government debt and deficit levels were comparable and, with the higher interest rates of the time, meant we were spending 35 per cent of all tax revenue on payments to Wall Street bondholders. There seemed to be no future for people like me.
But we all did fine, because we did the North American thing: We found a sequence of short-term contracts, informal cash-for-job deals, freelance hire-by-hour arrangements and shopfront hustles that eventually added up to a career (or, in my case, perhaps a careen). I worked for a while as an outplacement consultant, since sacking people en masse was the only happening job on Bay Street, and I can confirm that George Clooney actually underplayed the grotesqueries of that craft in Up in the Air. (We weren't allowed to utter the word "fired" or "downsized," but "right-sized" was available.)
And I had a few years where I had four or five income sources that totalled less than $20,000. But that's not an unusual start for North Americans in their 20s, and it didn't really leave a mark on my generation. Many of us ended up with permanent jobs and, by the time we were 30, the economy had digested us.
To a young European, that story is incomprehensible. The European Dream - in fact, the European Assumption if you're a middle-class university graduate - is the permanent employment contract. North Americans change jobs seven times in a lifetime, on average; in Europe, the average and the expectation is one job per life.
A full-time job with a permanent employment contract is not a period of work; it is the guarantee of a life, a lifestyle and a world. You start with a full month of paid vacation every year, and that can easily double within a couple of years when overtime is taken into account. It's almost impossible to get fired (Spanish employers need to pay you nine weeks pay for every year you've worked) and it's rare to leave a job: It's what you are.
Short-term and casual work is for poor immigrants and unschooled villagers, beneath the dignity of anyone whose parents had a full-time contract. (Even now, at the height of the crisis, ethnic Spaniards aren't taking such jobs.) Small-scale entrepreneurship is still exotic.
This financial crisis is putting an end to the European Dream. Last month, Spain began scrapping its full-time contract. France is sure to do the same and, in Greece, it's become meaningless. Europe, when it gets out of this mess, will no longer be divided into a small elite who are sheltered beneath a lifetime-job cushion and a large platoon (often with different skin colours) who hustle for pay; it will be all hustle, all the time, the way we learned to do it in a previous century.