The Parque del Norte is full of dog walkers most mornings, except for days where there is a wind, or a chill in the air, or clouds, or — God forbid — a drop of rain. (Madrileños like their weather clement. If it is not one-hundred per cent so, they stay in, sitting it out until the blue skies and optimal temperatures return.) In the morning there is no other single category of user who dominates the park as much as dog walkers. In the evenings, when I cross it once more on my way home from work, the park is the domain of the jogger (weather permitting, of course). On weekends, its half dozen or so playgrounds and basketball courts acting as magnets for the local kids, it is the tykes and their parents who take over. At night the park belongs to teenage bush drinkers (outdoor drinking is called botellón in Spain). No matter how often we pass through, the park never seems to belong to the likes of me — someone just taking advantage of the hypotenuse it makes in a city block to get from A to B quicker, although it is us who cause it the least wear and tear: we don’t leave our droppings or rake the soil like the dogs; we don’t litter like the kids and bush drinkers; and we don’t kick up paths or forge new ones through the grass like joggers, not to mention the ruts and tears created by cyclists.
This being Spain, dog walking is a social thing. In the Parque del Norte, you rarely see lone men or women leading (or being lead by) dogs. What you see are bunches of owners, standing atop a hill, laughing and shooting the breeze while their dogs cavort through the meadows and shrubbery below them. The dogs are off their leads, something that is illegal here, and many of the animals are wheeling around like, well, mad dogs, tongues lolling out, drool splattering the ground in a wide arc as they stab their paws into the turf to change direction, but, once more, this is Spain and rules always have an opt out clause. These knots of owners are unofficial clubs and they have built up over the years, the result of chance encounters between owners, spurred on by interactions, friendly or otherwise between their charges. If you let your dog off its leash in the Parque del Norte it is unavoidable that it will get into some sort of tussle or barney or scrap. Even if you stroll about minding your own business, canine companion legally leashed, eventually some cheeky cocker or amorous Afghan or territorial terrier will cause you to pull up, and in no time you’ll be swapping puppy dogs’ tales with your pooch’s new acquaintance’s daddy or mammy.
Owners fall into two categories: the young and the old. It stands to reason that at nine o’clock on a weekday the only people free to walk their dogs would be the retired or the jobless, and Spanish society has plenty of both. Owing to its demographic profile, almost everywhere you go in Spain outside of schools and university campuses is dominated by the wizened and the grey. As soon as you step off the plane at Madrid’s Barajas airport it is as plain as the nose on your face that this is an aging society. At the other end of things, with youth unemployment running at fifty per cent there’s an awful amount of people between the ages of eighteen and thirty with nothing but time on their hands. The middle of the demographic sandwich, those of us lucky enough to be in a job before the crisis hit (and keep it as the wolves of cutbacks and rationalisation circled), are levantando el país (raising up the country)! Hence the ostensibly incongruous demographic makeup of the dog walking clubs I see every morning.
I wonder what the young and the old have to say to each other beyond doggie-related powwow. Does it strike the OAPs, working lives behind them, mortgages paid, regular monthly income pinging into their bank accounts, how different the circumstance of their younger companions are to theirs? Does the retiree feel bad about the lack of opportunities, lower pay, less stable working climate and reduced levels of social protection available to the youth of Spain compared to what was available to his own generation? Does the OAP realise that when the boy or girl with whom he walks his dog is the age he himself is now that they will most likely be working rather than enjoying a stroll in the park — that our generation and those coming behind won’t have pensions or any sort of cushion should life take a bad turn? Does the young dog walker in turn resent the cushy life of her retiree counterpart, when the best that young people can hope for themselves is a series of short-term contracts, income of less than one thousand euro a month and living with their parents in perpetuity? (Housing is another area where the old baby boomers will have had it better than their grandchildren’s generation. You could pick up a flat in Madrid in the 1960s or 1970s for a couple of years’ wages. These days fifteen to twenty years’ wages will buy you the same kind of pad. For the first time in Spain’s history, the current crisis-racked generation will be renters rather than owner-occupiers. And who will be their landlords? The baby boomers!
It’s a bugbear of mine that Spain is a gerontocracy. In a way, demographics almost make this inevitable: if fifty per cent of the electorate is hitting sixty or over, politics and politicians being what they are, the whole shebang is eventually going to be run for the benefit of this loud, demanding and cantankerous majority. And so we have neighbourhoods awash with senior citizens’ centres, geriatric fitness clubs, pharmacies, private medical clinics, physiotherapy practices — all services catering to the aged, frail and ill-of-health — while the likes of youth centres, skate parks and playing fields are notable by their absence.
There even exists a government body called IMSERSO specially dedicated to retirees, and which among other things gives out cheap holidays to this sector. As well as being redolent of statism and a throwback to Spain’s fascist past, it strikes me as lunatic and unjust that, during the greatest economic crisis the country has known post-war, one arm of government is sending an already cushioned segment of society on their holiers while other arms make sweeping cuts to services like education or social welfare. My parents-in-law have been on three (I kid you not) state holidays this year — once to a spa and twice to Mediterranean resorts FOR TWO WEEKS each time. Whenever they complain about the hospitals or the roads — or whatever — I call them up on it. Someone who’s been packed off to the beach by the government has no right to complain about anything. In fact they’re better off keeping schtum and voting the same way they’ve always voted in order to make sure that the goodies keep rolling in their direction.
Every society has to find a balance between the needs of the various age sectors that compose it. In democracies, since those who tend to shout loudest get what they want, it can be easy to ignore minority sectors, follow the path of least resistant and devote scarce resources to powerful lobbies and the larger bodies of voters. In most countries the grey vote is well-organised, with articulate spokesmen in the press and voluntary sector driving their needs up the agenda. In political terms, youth does not tend to be as organised or involved. Even those young people who are politically active gravitate towards the extremes (only rightly so — who would trust a nineteen-year-old conservative?!) where their voices are unheard and marginalised. During the bad times it is young people themselves who tend to solve the problem of unemployment and lack of opportunities presented to them by society — by emigrating, and thus absenting themselves from any debate or movement intended to improve their lot. And so the cycle continues of a put-down youth suffering for the wickedness of their elders. We are seeing this in Spain at present and have witnessed it time and time again in Ireland.
Speaking of which, the phenomenon was on show in Ireland’s recent referendum on gay marriage. The country voted Yes, and all constituencies did so except one: Leitrim–Roscommon. The constituency has a huge demographic imbalance — a lot of kids, a lot of middle-aged and a heck of a lot of OAPs. There is a dearth of people between twenty and forty. They’ve all had to leave for Dublin or other big cities or emigrate altogether. And so the staid, fuddy-duddy voices of their parents and grandparents dominate the democratic process back home, while their own voices remain muted.