The Society

The Society

IN THE DECADE After The Death of Francisco Franco y Bahamonde (in power, 1939-75) in 1975, Spain experienced several powerful transformations. The political transition from a rigid dictatorship to an active parliamentary democracy was widely acknowledged as a highly significant event in West European history. Much more subtle, but equally significant in the long run, was Spain's social and economic transition, described as Spain's "economic miracle," which brought a relatively isolated, conservative social order to the threshold of an advanced industrial democracy. In the decades after the 1930's Civil War, Spain still possessed the social structures and values of a traditional, less developed country. By the late 1980s, Spanish society had already taken on most of the principal characteristics of postindustrial Europe, including a declining rate of births and of population growth generally, an erosion of the nuclear family, a drop in the proportion of the work force in agriculture, and changes in the role of women in society.

Changes in Spain's population reflected this transition quite clearly. Falling birth rates and increased life expectancy combined to produce a rapidly aging population that grew at an extremely slow pace. Spain also experienced massive shifts in the location of its people. Between 1951 and 1981, more than 5 million individuals left the poverty of rural and small-town Spain. Many headed for the more prosperous countries of Western Europe, but the more significant flow was from farm and village to Spain's exploding cities, especially Madrid, Barcelona, and Bilbao.

Spain's diverse ethnic and linguistic groups have existed for centuries, and they have presented Spanish governments with severe challenges since the nineteenth century. In the late 1980s, about one citizen in four spoke a mother tongue other than Castilian Spanish (primarily Catalan or one of its variants; the Basque language, Euskera; or Galician), but Castilian continued to be the dominant language throughout the country. Indeed, after nearly 150 years of industrial development and the migration of millions of nonethnic Spaniards to the ethnic homelands, particularly Barcelona and Bilbao, the non-Castilian languages were in danger of disappearing. Although the Franco regime began to liberalize its approach to the minority languages late in the 1960s, the overall effect of the dictatorship on these languages was very nearly disastrous. The 1978 Constitution made possible the establishment of regional autonomous governments with the requisite powers and resources to salvage their respective cultures and to make their languages co-official with Castilian in their own regions. Whether this experiment in regional bilingualism would succeed, however, remained to be seen.

In social values, Spain began to resemble its West European neighbors to the north. The status of women, for example, was one of the most notable of these changes, as women began to figure more prominently in education, politics, and the work force generally. Closely associated with these changes were a number of other social characteristics including a more liberal stance on abortion, contraception, divorce, and the role of the large and extended family. The Roman Catholic Church, long a dominant power in Spanish life, opposed these developments, but as Spain became a more materialistic and more secular society, the church's ability to determine social mores and policies was strikingly eroded.

Spain also underwent major changes in its educational system. In 1970 Spanish law made education free and compulsory through the age of fourteen; the challenge in the 1980s was to provide the resources necessary to fulfill this obligation. Although the schools enrolled essentially all the school-age population and the country's illiteracy rate was a nominal 3 percent, the school system was plagued by serious problems, including a rigid tracking system, a high failure rate, and poorly paid instructors. In 1984 the Socialist government passed the Organic Law on the Right to Education (Ley Organica del Derecho a la Educacion--LODE) in an attempt to integrate into a single system the three school systems: public, private secular, and Roman Catholic. Changes reached the university level as well, as the Law on University Reform (Ley de Reforma Universitaria--LRU) made each public university autonomous, subject only to general rules set down in Madrid.

In the late 1980s, Spain continued to rank at the low end of the list of advanced industrial democracies in terms of social welfare. Its citizens enjoyed the usual range of social welfare benefits, including health coverage, retirement benefits, and unemployment insurance, but coverage was less comprehensive than that in most other West European countries. The retirement system was under increasing pressure because of the aging population. Housing construction just barely managed to keep pace with rapid urbanization in the 1970s, and by the late 1980s the country had to begin to address some of the "quality of life" issues connected with housing. The society ranked high on some indicators of health care, such as physician availability, but there were still residual health problems more reminiscent of the Third World, particularly a high incidence of communicable diseases. There were dramatic gains in reducing the infant mortality rate, but severe problems in the areas of public health, safety, and environmental concerns--industrial accidents and air, water, and noise pollution--were a direct outgrowth of uncontrolled, rapid industrialization.

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