With unemployment among young people in the European Union at 23 percent and topping 50 percent in Greece and Spain, these 20-something Latvians say the crisis was good for them, despite the economic pain that accompanied it. Presidents and prime ministers have convened crisis talks, international organizations have called for extraordinary measures to spur hiring, and an entire generation has been forced to adjust its aspirations. But last year, Davis Kanepe, 28, took matters into his own hands in Riga.
He leased a crumbling, Italianate music school building on a down-on-its-heels corner in the middle of the city and, with some friends, turned it into a bar and cultural center.
“Of course, it’s hard, and you don’t work eight hours a day, but you have to work 14 hours a day,” Kanepe said one recent evening at his club, where people wearing stylish hand-me-down sweaters and black-plastic-frame glasses smoked at outdoor cafe tables and drank Belgian beer.
“But if you start working when you’re 19,” as many Latvians did in the boom years before the 2008 crash, “you haven’t had time to think about what your actual aims are,” Kanepe said. Those without a steady job because of the lousy economy have had more time to decide what they want to do, he said. “We who are under 30 understand a lot of things better.”
In this pint-size country of 2.2 million nestled along the Baltic Sea, some young people are signing up at small businesses that blur the distinction between work and personal life, where there is no need to commute to an office. Many say they would have it no other way. If life is more precarious, they say, it’s also more exciting.
A similar movement is happening across Europe and in the United States, where burgeoning communities of small-scale start-ups are attracting people who, before the 2008 crash, would have gone to work for an investment bank or consulting firm. Internet commerce makes it possible for creative types to sell services and merchandise in destinations far from home. That gives an advantage to countries such as Latvia, where the cost of living is low, making it easier to turn a profit.
“If you have some hobby that you really love to do, and you want to do it as a living, it’s very relaxed here,” said Jurga Kupstyte, 32, who worked at an international bank in Riga, the capital, but quit to get a master’s degree in cultural anthropology. She was keeping Kanepe company one recent afternoon as he hawked baskets of fresh strawberries on the street outside his club.