John Harris

Journalist & Author

For a generation of young Poles, travelling abroad is still often the only option

In the town of Limanowa, teenagers are pessimistic about their prospects and know they may well have to seek work elsewhere

It’s 4pm, and the town of Limanowa is being battered by a sudden downpour. In the main square, young people are huddled in shop doorways in twos and threes. Among their number is a 21-year-old who tells me his name is Dominik, clad in the obligatory hooded top and baseball cap, tugging on a cigarette, doing his best James Dean, and surveying the scene with a kind of low-level contempt.

“I’ll be happy to get out of here as soon as possible,” he says. “There’s nothing here: to get a job, you have to leave.” What job does he fancy doing? “Any job,” he retorts.

He’s been back here for a year after a spell working in Italy, where he plans to soon return, maybe after trying his luck in Warsaw. His speciality is building work, and the local job market simply doesn’t pay: he says he’d get 50 Polish zlotys (PLN) an hour in Italy, PLN 24 an hour in Warsaw, and only eight if he stays here – with the proviso that finding even a low-paid job will probably be difficult.

Such is the kind of blunt arithmetic that defines the lives of thousands of young Poles: their generation may be hailed for being so worldly and well-travelled, but those qualities are often traceable not to joyous wanderlust, but a deep pessimism about the prospects of towns like this.

Limanowa, to be fair, is hardly a social hell. Around 60 miles south of Krakow, most of the way to the border with Slovakia, it sits in the Beskid Wyspowy, a range of hills that attract hikers and skiers, and the Alp-like Tatra mountains are not far away. The population is around 15,000, and compared with the gap-toothed high streets of so many comparable British towns, its centre seems relatively vibrant, an embodiment of that brazen post-communist capitalism whereby every available surface is plastered with an advert, and the more blatant the sales pitch, the better.

On the main road here, the hills – which, to my eyes, half-suggest the landscape of rural south Wales – are peppered with impressively large houses, which locals say are often paid for using money sent home from young relatives working abroad.

Underneath it all, however, is a story of ongoing hard times. Poland may have avoided a recession, but the unemployment rate in Limanowa county is 20%, a third of people who can’t find a job are under 25, and more than half are under 35 (nationally, youth unemployment stands at 23%, five points higher than in the UK).

Each winter, according to local officials, there is a sudden bulge in the number of young locals on benefits, thanks to an influx of people returning to Poland after working abroad. Back in the communist era, the local economy was swollen by the imperative to make sure everyone was in work: the local enterprises included a food-processing plant, and a factory that made industrial metering equipment. They’re both still here, but their payrolls are a tiny fraction of their former size, and local family-run farms don’t bring in enough money to keep their owners in full-time work, let alone anyone else.

What with scores of hiking trails and villages smattered with ski-lifts, there could conceivably be a tourist economy here. There’s a freshly launched local enterprise zone, which has attracted a handful of small businesses, and in April, a new call centre will open, giving work to around 40 people. But all told, this is a case study in one big aspect of Poland’s rising levels of inequality: the increasing gap between often thriving urban areas, and its rural backwaters.

“We have human capital: people who want to work,” says 35-year-old Marek Mlynarczyk, the director of Limanowa’s employment agency. “But there’s not enough investment.” To make things even more difficult, the budget for his agency’s work, he tells me, has just been cut by almost 65%.

The town’s schools reflect the general sense of life being lived in trying circumstances. Many Poles I meet mention a latent national anxiety about the under-funding of education, and you can see why: whereas plenty of British schools have long been modernised and equipped with mountains of IT, Limanowa’s remind me of the shabby-looking place I went to during the depths of the Thatcher years. There is an all-pervading smell of overcooked vegetables, and everything could do with a fresh coat of paint – but there again, at the Josef Pilsudski school (named after the legendary politician who brought Poland back into being after the first world war), a group of eight students aged between 17 and 18 are sparkiness and confidence incarnate.

After Polish teenagers have finished at gimnazjum schools – similar to British comprehensives – at the age of 15, they take one of four paths. There are “basic” vocational schools, lyceums aimed at readying their students for university, and two types of institution that sit somewhere in between: “vocational secondary” and “technical” schools. These eight are beneficiaries of the first type of institution, and all able to speak good English: learning it is compulsory for all secondary school students, and if you aim at working in any remotely high-end occupation, it’s a must.

On the wall of the classroom where we talk is a handmade poster that reduces the UK’s attractions to Windsor Castle, the Tower of London, York Minster, Stonehenge – and, for some reason, Harrods. No one, however, is minded to come and work in the UK; instead, people mention Italy, Austria, and, in the case of 18-year-old Lucjan Sobczak, Germany, whose labour market will be open to Poles as of 1 May.

“I went there three years ago,” he says. “There are jobs there, and the life-level is high, so it’s a country I like. It’s clean, not like here in Poland. You can see how it is here in Limanowa: there’s a lot of rubbish in the streets.”

What about working in the UK? “We associate the UK with sin,” he says. A brief exchange with the Guardian’s interpreter ascertains that he actually means “sinks”, by which he means washing-up jobs, and menial work in general. “We’re studying to get better jobs than that,” he says, “so we’ll go somewhere else.”

Around half of them want to eventually return to their home country to pursue careers as lawyers; a couple of others say they would eventually like to work as translators.

I talk to them for just under an hour, and the conversation is fascinating, pointing up the fact that they’re part of a generation caught between Poland’s long-standing Catholic conservatism, and a more liberal mindset fostered by increasing links with the rest of Europe.

Seven of them go to church each Sunday, though at least one confesses that it’s largely due to parental pressure, and they all concur that among their contemporaries, religious observance is on the wane. They unanimously endorse Poland’s strict abortion laws (it’s permitted only in cases of rape, when the mother’s life is threatened, or if the foetus is seriously abnormal), but are divided 50/50 on the idea of allowing gay marriage: its most vehement opponent today is Maciej Buklanda, 18, whose long hair and grunge-esque casualwear do not quite chime with his illiberal opinions. “It’s nonsense,” he half spits. “I don’t believe in love between people of the same sex.”

This riles Karolina Kowalczyk, 18, no end. “What do you mean?” she says. “If they want to, they should be able to. It’s none of my business. I don’t want to look at it … but it’s not an illness, or something like that. If a man loves another man, that’s up to him.” Politicians, they reckon, are a distant, irritating presence, guilty of “just arguing with each other” and feathering their own nests: they all say they’ll probably vote at the next election, but seem to have no idea of which candidate to choose.

They mention the ubiquity of the Polish black market, and cash-in-hand jobs. There is a surge of chat about graduate unemployment, an increasing problem in a country in which almost half of young people go to university, and there is unease about whether higher education meets the country’s economic needs. In today’s edition of the regional newspaper Dziennik Polski, there’s a piece about all this, headlined: “Young, frustrated, unemployed.”

When I ask them to define success, there are shades of an article I’ve brought with me, in which a Polish social psychologist rather sniffily sums up young Poles as “predominantly materialistic hedonists”. “You have to have a lot of money,” says Lucjan. “It’s not just about that, but if you’re poor, you’re not successful.”

Karolina dispenses an answer that ends with the possibility of “some of my dreams coming true”, and I wonder: is she optimistic about that happening? “I’m not optimistic at all,” she says.

“Not in Poland, anyway,” adds a voice at the back, grimly.

Round the corner is the Zespół Szkół Ogólnokształcacych i Zawodowych, a vocational secondary school which is privately owned and run, but publicly funded. We’re here to talk to an IT class; rather disconcertingly, today’s lesson is focused on how to work a till, a dozen or so of which are arranged around the desks. The entire class is female; their ambitions seem much more uncertain than in the last school, they speak to me in Polish rather than English, and only half say they aim to go to university.

But much the same themes recur. All of them go to church. They’re also unanimously anti-abortion, whereas gay marriage splits them in half (with the caveat that even for those in favour, gay adoption is a very problematic idea). The mention of politics draws a series of bemused blanks. Six out of eight have siblings working abroad, and when I ask if they’re minded to follow their example, the usual flurry of countries comes back in a flash: Germany, Austria, Sweden, even Brazil.

One question demands to be asked: what would have to change, to keep their generation not just in Limanowa, but in Poland? They mention what they understand as middling monthly earnings among the young adults they know – only PLN 1,500. “We need more jobs,” says Marzena Banach, 18. “And fair pay. People here work, but they don’t get the pay they deserve. It’s that simple.” © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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