For many young Europeans from the older Europe, Poland may be the place to go
CRACOW, Poland. Strolling through one giant and very modern shopping mall of one of Poland’s most industrious towns, with the familiar display of multinational brands, one may be forgiven for thinking this must not be too far away from what is traditionally considered the prosperous part of Europe, somewhere in Southern Germany or in Paris. People who never been here maybe be very surprised this is what contemporary Poland looks like.
Poland has, undoubtedly, come a long way since the collapse of Socialist Eastern Europe thirty years ago, although the scars of Communist stagnation are still well too visible in many Polish towns. But even if the occasional building that desperately looks in need of a renovation may stand out and ruin the general impression, this is clearly a country on the rise. The Polish economy has grown almost uninterruptedly for the past 30 years, at an average rate of 4% a year. Many multinational companies, attracted by lower personnel costs, have dislocated offices to Warsaw, Wroclaw or Cracow. Google has operations in Cracow, like many other well-known IT companies.
Still, until recently Poland was being regarded as an unlikely destination for many young Europeans in search of better chances and a more secure future. Hundred of thousands of young people from Italy or Spain, countries were unemployment among the youth had traditionally been high and skyrocketed in the aftermath of the Great Recession, have left their homeland in the last 10 years. The vast majority of them has preferred to move to the most traditional destinations for people in search of jobs, like Germany, France, or even the UK, attracted by the prospects of better salaries. Some have gone elsewhere.
“I moved to Cracow from Berlin”, says Diego, an Italian online marketing manager from Milan. “I had been living in Berlin for 5 years, but I cannot really say I ever felt at home there”.
Like many other young Europeans, he had been attracted to Berlin by what he felt was a vibrant multicultural atmosphere and its fertile start-up scene. “I was younger and I wanted to mingle with people from other nations. But when you grow up and you want to save a bit of money, then Berlin is probably not the right place anymore”. Diego said he was making 1500 euro a month working as a marketing manager for an online shop. “The work was ok, but it has become increasingly difficult to live in this city. Rents have gone up incredibly over the last five years. When I came here, some people were saying that you could live on 800 euro a month. You could rent a small place for 300 and a room for 200 euro. That is all but gone now.”
“Here in Cracow I found a job working for a large tech company. The job is definitely more exciting than what I was doing in Berlin. I am earning less money, in fact I am making now only 4300 zloty or just about 1000 euro, but I am spending also much less. I am renting a small apartment in the city centre for 400 euro and transport cost me just 20 euro instead of 81”.
The average net salary in Cracow is around 800 euro, not much to begin with at first glance, but typically young expats make more than this and receive generous benefits for relocating to Poland. Diego for example was given a whole monthly salary as a relocation bonus and this is by far not an exception. Lower living expenses make the real difference. According to data from Numbeo, a world-wide price comparison website, the cost of living in Poland, including rent and consumer prices, is almost 50% less than in Diego’s native Milan, where the average net salary is about 1500 euro.
“I don’t know many people from Milan who would think of moving here to Poland”, says Diego. “Milan has this very strong capitalistic and entrepreneurial spirit. People still think Poland is part of wretchedly poor Eastern Europe”.
Enrique comes from Tenerife, in the Spanish Canary Islands off the Moroccan coast. He says he misses the tropical climate and the gentle winters, but that there was nothing for him to do down there: “The economy of Tenerife is all about tourism. And not everyone can work in tourism”.
“I was very pleasantly surprised when I came here as an Erasmus student. Everyone loved the fact that I was speaking real Spanish. People really seemed to like the Spanish language here and were extremely friendly to me. The cold of course was a little shock, but you can get used to that”.
After university Enrique decided to emigrate to London, which he then thought was the most exciting city in Europe. “I wanted to be at the centre of things, where stuff was happening, where trends were being set, where people speak English”. He is not disappointed but said he realized rather quickly London is the easiest city for regular people. “I ended up finding work in a hotel, because of the languages that I speak and of my experience in Tenerife. But competition is so tough, with people flocking to London from literally every corner of the world. I wanted to look for a better job but I could not afford to quit mine and I was coming home exhausted every day. My dream of living in London had become true, but I was barely making ends meet, living from paycheck to paycheck”.
“Then a friend from Tenerife suggested I come to Poland”, Enrique or Kike, as literally everyone calls him, says. “He told me he had for me a job in the company he was working for. They needed people who speak Spanish. No knowledge of Polish was required”.
Kike has been living in Cracow for 2 years ago. “I work part-time as a Spanish teacher and as a tourist guide. There are many tourists from Spain coming to Cracow. I have 3-4 tours a week. I am not rich, but I can afford to live comfortably, with a few amenities, and it’s much more relaxed than in London. In England sometimes, I could afford to eat just bread with cheese. Here for 5 euro I can buy enough to be full the whole day, in fact I need to be careful not too eat too much, because the food is so tasty here”.
Would he recommend Poland to his friends? “Definitely, yes. It’s a very good place for dynamic young people. Yes, the language can give you a bit of a headache, but German, for example, is also not much easier than Polish. The greatest thing is, people are really curious about you here. It’s not like London or some other big European city, where you are the millionth Spanish guy people have seen. There are many opportunities for foreigners here”.
People tend to have in mind the wave of mass emigration Poland experienced in the 1990s, during its transformation years, when approximately 2 million working-age Poles left their country. With the Polish economy growing and offering hope to many disenfranchised young Europeans, can the former trend now be reversed?