Step right up, multiple useless degrees preferred ... Photographer: Angel Navarrete/Bloomberg
Step right up, multiple useless degrees preferred ... Photographer: Angel Navarrete/Bloomberg

The viral rant of a 25-year-old Spaniard, who despite three college degrees has found himself cleaning toilets and washing dishes in a London cafe, illustrates a hard truth about Europe's unemployed: They might not have the skills employers need.

Spaniard Benjamin Serra Bosch garnered at least 2,000 reposts on Facebook -- as well as sympathetic coverage in Telegraph of London, the Huffington Post and Business Insider -- for his screed decrying the lack of good jobs for his "lost generation."

"Some customers are so nasty I want to shove my university degrees and my master's in their faces," Serra wrote. "But that would serve no purpose. It seems these degrees are only good for cleaning the crap that I wipe off the toilets at the cafeteria."

Serra is one of a growing army of young Spaniards looking for work in the U.K. Out of a population of 47.3 million, 4.7 million Spaniards are on the dole. People under 25 are the hardest hit, with unemployment among them topping 56 percent, compared with 26 percent for the total workforce.

Sympathy for people such as Serra, with his useless degrees in journalism, public relations and community management, is only natural. But there may be more to the story.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has adopted a novel approach to measuring the skills of workers in developed countries. Instead of concentrating on time spent getting an education or the number of people with college degrees, the OECD actually tested 166,000 people in 24 countries for literacy and numeracy. The first results have just been published.

Spaniards and Italians tested the worst for literacy and numeracy: Only one in 20 adults was proficient at the highest level of literacy, and nearly three in 10 performed at or below the lowest level of proficiency in both literacy and numeracy. The lowest level is the basic ability to read a short text and find a piece of information in it that is identical or similar to the question asked. People at this level can understand the meaning of sentences and fill in simple forms. They can also count, perform basic arithmetical operations and understand simple percentages such as 50 percent.

Go below that level, and you find people who are, for all practical purposes, illiterate and innumerate.

In both Spain and Italy, more than 20 percent of those surveyed failed the simplest test of computer skills, such as the ability to use a mouse or scroll through a web page.

What about all those college degrees, then? According to the OECD report, Japanese and Dutch 25-to-34-year-olds who have completed high school easily outperform university graduates from Italy and Spain on the literacy and numeracy tests. Europe's common labor market is tough on people from countries with less competitive education systems, so many migrants appear overqualified for the work they do.

The good but frustrating news is that all these dismal statistics have little to do with Serra and his generation. In most countries, younger adults' literacy and numeracy skills are superior to those of their older peers. Of all the countries surveyed, the gap is the most pronounced in Korea, but Spain comes second. It is one of the few countries where people aged 16-24 score higher in both literacy and numeracy than any other cohort.

Young Spaniards are much more skilled and better educated than the preceding generations, which only adds to their sense of being done out of their entitlement. All the jobs are taken by people with an inferior ability to handle them. Someday, however, the "lost generation" is bound to come into its own. It is only a matter of time.

Spain's worst problems are in the present, while other, seemingly luckier countries may face workforce quality issues in the future. American 16-to-24-year-olds scored the lowest in the OECD's sample of countries in problem-solving proficiency. In terms of that skill set, the gap between them and their 55-to-65-year-old compatriots is the narrowest in the developed world.

(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is a Bloomberg View contributor. Follow him on Twitter.)