Young, broke in Greece

For a ‘lost gen­er­a­tion’ born of the na­tion’s eco­nomic woes, the fu­ture brings hard­ship and few job prospects.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Steven Zeitchik

ATHENS — On a re­cent Satur­day night, sev­eral hun­dred stu­dents staged a protest in front of a bar. A wait­ress, some of the stu­dents said, had been fired for re­quest­ing over­time, and they stood out­side the estab­lish­ment — fit­tingly named Re­volt — call­ing out work­ers’ slo­gans.

Mem­bers of a group known as Against Mod­ern Slav­ery, the demon­stra­tors were al­most all younger than 30. They re­mained out­side Re­volt for sev­eral hours, soberly chant­ing in a square ringed by tav­erns and week­end revelry.

As Greece threat­ens to de­fault on a key In­ter­na­tional Mon­e­tary Fund pay­ment this week, the head­lines are filled with ab­stract lingo such as debt re­struc­tur­ing and tax code re­form. But gath­er­ings of this type sug­gest a more ex­is­ten­tially des­per­ate re­al­ity for young peo­ple in this na­tion of 11 mil­lion.

“We re­mem­ber be­ing at the kitchen ta­ble and our par­ents talk­ing about when times were good,” said Iro Pappa, a 22-year-old en­gi­neer­ing stu­dent at­tend­ing the protest. “But I don’t know when we’ll ex­pe­ri­ence it our­selves. How do you out­run a cri­sis?”

Greece’s eco­nomic woes will soon en­ter their eighth year, its stag­ger­ing debt that be­gan ac­cu­mu­lat­ing five years ago com­pounded by gov­ern­ment aus­ter­ity mea­sures and the in­ter­na­tional fi­nan­cial melt­down of 2008. That is an eter­nity in the life of a young per­son, and Greek youths to­day ex­ude a gen­er­a­tional pes­simism found in few Euro­pean coun­tries since the Cold War. Many don’t even re­call a time when life was good — and lack the rea­sons or imag­i­na­tion to think it ever will be.

They have felt the ef­fects of a dec­i­mated job mar­ket — the econ­omy has con­tracted by a quar­ter since the cri­sis be­gan — as well as the aus­ter­ity mea­sures. More than half a dozen aus­ter­ity packages dat­ing to 2010 have raised taxes on in­come and con­sump­tion, cut public sec­tor jobs and un­rav­eled wel­fare mea­sures; they have con­tin­ued de­spite the pres­ence of a rad­i­cal-left gov­ern­ment that has promised to roll back aus­ter­ity.

Dis­il­lu­sioned, young peo­ple are co­a­lesc­ing into what an­a­lysts view as a dis­tinct so­cial group.

“I think what we are see­ing in Greece is a lost gen­er­a­tion,” said Kevin Feather­stone, a pro­fes­sor at the Lon­don School of Eco­nomics who is an ex­pert on mod­ern Greek so­ci­ety. “There’s a de­spon­dency about their own fu­ture and their place within Europe that a pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion never had. Those at­ti­tudes will stay with them when they’re 30 and 40 and be­yond.”

Their protest­ing, he noted, may be born as much of a need for pur­pose as the con­vic­tion that they can change the sys­tem.

The fi­nan­cial statis­tics are daunt­ing. The youth un­em­ploy­ment rate in Greece tops 50%, dou­ble the al­ready high na­tional av­er­age. The Greek min­i­mum wage is cal­cu­lated separately for young peo­ple, so even those who do have jobs tend to make less than their older coun­ter­parts.

An abun­dance of reg­u­la­tions also seems to tar­get the young. This in­cludes a re­quire­ment that free­lancers, of which young peo­ple con­sti­tute a dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber, pay nearly $1,000 an­nu­ally for the right to be self-em­ployed, re­gard­less of whether they make a cent do­ing so.

Youth home­less­ness is sky­rock­et­ing, as is sub­stance abuse. In more hard­scrab­ble parts of town, the pres­ence of peo­ple us­ing in­tra­venous drugs on the street can be jar­ring to out­siders who imag­ine the debt cri­sis largely as the domain of of­fi­cials in Brussels.

But the de­spair isn’t limited to such stark ex­am­ples. A hand-to-mouth ex­is­tence, young peo­ple say, is the norm for a group that has never known the re­lief of, much less had the op­por­tu­nity to save dur­ing, f lush eco­nomic times.

“You know by now not to take jobs with the com­pa­nies that have no cash and won’t pay you for six months or a year,” said Alex Salame, who works as a TV pro­ducer. “Of course that means you don’t have a lot of op­tions of where to take jobs.”

Mat­ters have grown bleak enough that one of the twen­tysome­thing founders of a civic en­gage­ment group that was de­signed to pull Greece out of the cri­sis is con­sid­er­ing leav­ing the coun­try.

Stepha­nia Xy­dia, a Cam­bridge-ed­u­cated en­tre­pre­neur, re­turned to Greece in 2011 to start the non­profit Place Iden­tity. The or­ga­ni­za­tion and its af­fil­i­ate, Imag­ine the City, have won in­ter­na­tional con­tests for their in­no­va­tive pro­pos­als to reimag­ine a so­ci­ety that has been mired in bu­reau­cracy and cor­rup­tion.

But Xy­dia, 28, said she is days away from let­ting go the half a dozen em­ploy­ees at the non­profit be­cause fund­ing has dried up and no new projects are on the hori­zon. Then, she said, she may leave Greece.

“Some days I just want to cry,” Xy­dia said as she sat in her of­fice, her nor­mally feisty spirit crack­ing. “We de­serve bet­ter than this.”

She re­called a friend who cal­cu­lated that he could sur­vive in Athens on about $13,000 a year as a free­lancer — and then found that af­ter fees and taxes he’d be left with just $5,000.

The cri­sis is not limited to the young. But older Greeks have the his­tor­i­cal mem­ory and psy­cho­log­i­cal where­withal to ride out the tough times. They also might have some money stashed away.

A mo­ment af­ter Xy­dia spoke, a col­league, Mary Karatza, walked into the room.

“You just have to live for the now and not think about the fu­ture,” she said, a state­ment that would have been more con­vinc­ing had Karatza not been six months preg­nant.

Faced with the chal­lenges, some see a sil­ver lining.

The streets of Athens are newly filled with buskers. Mu­si­cians say a cre­ative spirit can take root now that young peo­ple are free of ma­te­rial con­cerns.

“They say Athens is the new Ber­lin, and I think there’s a lot of truth to that,” said Thomas Arlo, 25, a Cal­i­for­nia res­i­dent with Greek roots who re­cently re­turned to the coun­try as a street mu­si­cian. He sat with his gui­tar near an empty ap­parel store and laid out his view. “I think you have to look at it that way. Greece to­day is like a new girl­friend: It takes a while to for­get the old one, but once you do, life is bet­ter.”

Still, the arts take money, and even cre­ative spir­its ac­cus­tomed to living mea­gerly say they can run out of op­tions.

Con­stantina Ge­or­giou ar­rived from Cyprus, fol­low­ing a his­tor­i­cal trend among young Greek Cypri­ots to move to the larger coun­try, in the mid-2000s. She founded her own theater pro­duc­tion com­pany and had been build­ing it steadily. Then the cri­sis hit. She was 27, with no sav­ings. She be­gan tak­ing more me­nial jobs.

To­day she pieces to­gether a living work­ing on low-level free­lance pro­duc­ing projects for com­pa­nies out­side Greece that can ac- tu­ally pay her — one in Wales and an­other in Den­mark and Swe­den.

“I don’t want to leave, but thank­fully there’s the In­ter­net, be­cause the only way to stay and make money is to find work out­side of Greece,” she said.

How far-reach­ing the ef­fects of th­ese fac­tors will be re­mains to be seen.

Greece has al­ready been hit by a brain drain, a phe­nom­e­non more com­mon among the mo­bile young.

As part of the Schen­gen Agree­ment, Greeks can move freely within Europe, a luxury many have taken ad­van­tage of. Though they must com­pete for jobs in places where they don’t speak the lan­guage, as many as 200,000 have al­ready sought their for­tunes else­where since the cri­sis be­gan.

And with a dispir­ited or ab­sent youth core, Greece, whose pop­u­la­tion has al­ready aged sig­nif­i­cantly in the last few decades, could have a harder time re­build­ing even if there was an eco­nomic re­cov­ery.

Those who re­main in the coun­try could also shape a new po­lit­i­cal re­al­ity. With lit­tle to lose, sup­port for an exit from the euro com­mon cur­rency is higher among young peo­ple, and ex­perts such as Feather­stone fear that “with­out a nar­ra­tive of a for­ward-look­ing, cen­trist Europe, young peo­ple may be drawn to the po­lit­i­cal ex­tremes.”

For now, more im­me­di­ate con­cerns pre­vail.

As he sat at a cafe, Ge­org Ilas, 20, a stu­dent at Athens Polytech­nic, said he was de­bat­ing his op­tions af­ter grad­u­a­tion.

“I don’t think I’d leave Greece, but the gov­ern­ment doesn’t give us much of a choice,” he said.

Across the ta­ble, his friend, Smaragoloc Vloc­chochi, also 20, ven­tured an op­pos­ing thought. “Yes, but we can’t al­ways blame pol­i­tics,” she said. “I think we have to try to make a bet­ter life for our­selves. Be­cause, if not, no one else will do it.”

Louisa Gouliamaki AFP/Getty Images

STU­DENTS march in Athens last year. “There’s a de­spon­dency about their own fu­ture,” an ex­pert on mod­ern Greek so­ci­ety said of young Greeks.

Louisa Gouliamaki AFP/Getty Images

GREEK demon­stra­tors shout slo­gans dur­ing a march in Novem­ber. Many young peo­ple in the debt-laden and aus­ter­ity-driven coun­try can­not re­call a time when life was good — and doubt it ever will be.


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