In this special series of blogs, Y Money Y takes a deeper look at the chronic economic crisis in Greece and asks how it is affecting the next generation. In this first article, Matt Bain spends time with a group of young people, finding out their hopes, fears and questions about the future. What he discovered was both moving and uplifting in equal measure…
By Matt Bain
One thing struck me as I got to know some talented Greek teenagers in Thessaloniki last week. Not all of them are angry. They certainly have a right to be- they face the worst economic prospects ever facing a generation in Greece.
I expected to meet a group of irate and politically radical young men and women. After all, there’s been so much news coverage of the (mainly) young anti-austerity protestors who swept Syriza to power in January and returned them there last in last week’s election; a generation feeling disempowered, incensed at a political elite who’ve nearly bankrupted their country, and unable to take it any longer.
Alongside sympathy for their plight, the youth of Greece have attracted criticism for their apparently naïve belief that Alexis Tsipras could wave a magic leftie wand and save them from this slow-motion catastrophe. None of the people I met believed this. They showed a far more intelligent understanding of the sheer complexity of the situation. Yes, anger and frustration is there, of course. But in equal measure are a range of other, more constructive emotions and perspectives.
The current situation for Greece’s young is undoubtedly bleak. Youth unemployment (under 24) is running at 40%, while 50-60% of 25-30 year olds are out of work. The economy has shrunk by a quarter and the most recently agreed bail-out deal from the EU means many more years of punishing austerity seem inevitable. Young people can no longer expect or even hope for a job in the public sector, after huge cuts in the workforce.
Nor can young entrepreneurs hope to start a business.“They would have no customers because no-one has any money to spend”, says Anastasia Chaloulakou, a first year physics student at the University of Thessaloniki. “Waiting tables and working in bars is pretty much all we can hope to expect. So most young people just want to get out. They get their degrees here or move away to study, and stay. There’s nothing for them here.”
For 17-year-old Anda Papageorgiou, “this all happened five years ago when I was in junior high school, and it’s changed my whole perspective about life…..I’ve had to accept that I probably won’t get a job in my own country”.
Anda does not, however, feel furious with or even particularly blame previous governments that created this mess. Since the 1980s, the socialist party PaSoK and conservative New Democracy both, as they took turns in power, instituted policies of mass public spending and ran up a huge deficit.
“It’s easy to blame the governments that created the crisis but who’s to say that we wouldn’t have done the same? You have to understand about Greece that we had the Second World War, then the civil war, which were so bad, and after that people wanted to create a Greek version of the American dream. It was like, we deserve all this, better cars, bigger houses.”
But surely, I asked, when they were appointing an estimated 150,000 new civil servants, swelling pensions, inflating salaries, all on credit, they must have had an inkling somewhere in the back of their mind that the money would eventually run out?
“They look like the biggest fools now, but at the time it’s difficult to say whether we’d have done differently, if we’d been in their position.”
I reflected that few of us in Britain predicted how the boom years we enjoyed on credit would end in tears so spectacularly in the 2008 crash. There is a good deal of wisdom in Anda’s argument. Hindsight enjoys 20/20 vision on the past, but at the time it was all a bit blurry.
A talented flautist, Anda knows only too well how few jobs for orchestral musicians there are in Greece (indeed, that was the case before the crisis), and she’s reconciled to the inevitability of emigrating if she wants to make it.
“Should I stay here and help my country, do something about the situation, or leave and follow my dream? That’s a difficult decision.”
To want to stay and help seems admirable. But, I suggested, surely you have a duty to yourself, first and foremost – isn’t it the responsibility of the government’s generation to sort it out? “Well, why isn’t it my responsibility as well?”
I found myself wondering how many young people in the UK would shun their personal dreams and ambitions to help stay and put their country back on its feet in a crisis. I love my country as much as the next bloke, but I doubt my loyalty would stretch as far as Anda’s.
Perhaps that says a lot about the Greek character. This is a small country of only 10 million people, with a close-knit bond between the generations. Greece’s reputation for cronyism and nepotism is notorious but the other side of the coin is that this family and relationship-centric society makes a very caring people, with a generation of young people prepared to stay and muck in to sort it out. A
fter all, with hardly any of the one million unemployed people receiving any help from the government, people are entirely reliant on family, the local community, church or charity to keep them from starving.
“People have become much more caring”, Anastasia told me.
The sense that we’re-all-this-together <and we need to look after each other> has grown. But a worrying side-trend to the deep disillusionment has been the rise of the far-right neo-fascist party New Dawn with many disaffected youths; in fact since last week’s election they are now the post popular party among 18-24 year olds.
Anastasia: “It’s not just old people. I have classmates who support them. They blame it all on the refugees, the Arabs, because it’s a simple way of understanding what’s happened and finding someone convenient to blame.”
“It’s all about education,” Vasiliki Bekiari told me. “They believe this stuff because not everybody is properly politically educated- they don’t really understand what is going on.”
Vasiliki, who is in her final year at high school and has to make big decisions about her future this year, does feel angry. As we ate lunch and talked about Greek delicacies, her tone of voice turned suddenly <very> passionate when I asked her how she felt about the crisis. Her frustration is not only with the government but with the predicament EU and euro membership has now wrought for her country and the awful bind they are now in.
“Yes, it makes me really mad sometimes. All the decisions about our country are now taken by the EU. We feel like slaves that will never be free. I mean what more can we do? We’ve been paying higher and higher taxes since 2009. It just feels like there will never be an end in sight.”
What about the hope Syriza was meant to bring? Vasiliki has very little faith in the current government, or indeed any government, to sort out the current situation.
“Because it’s like they know something we don’t, and won’t tell us what’s really going on. It’s almost as if it’s a conspiracy to keep us in this situation. Nobody will do anything to solve it.”
Her exasperation is understandable because, like so many Greeks, she doesn’t trust the newspapers or TV channels to report what is actually going on (all owned by oligarchs, they routinely ignore all reports of corruption).
So what possible way out is there?
“We could leave the EU. That’s the only option I see.”
Anger is therapeutic and shows that young people like Vasiliki aren’t going to take this lying down. But I got the impression that these young Greeks are trying also to channel other constructive feelings. Anger will only get them so far; it did not surprise me that the ancient Greek tradition of stoicism is also helping many of these people get through.
But, however philosophical they might be and however many ways of coping they’ve found, with no realistic prospect of an economic recovery for many years to come, it can be hard to stave off simple melancholia.
“It does make me really sad. It makes me sad that I’ll have to leave Greece for work. I love this country very much”, Alexandra Tsiara, who plays the violin, told me. And then, amidst the sadness, is a glimmer of optimism; the most valuable asset young people will always have. “I also have hope. I hope things will be better in another five years.”
I desperately want to believe Alexandra. They’re all searching for ways, practically and psychologically, to cope with a situation none of them asked for and certainly do not deserve. Aptly, in the birthplace of western philosophy, I found in them a great deal of wisdom. If the decisions of the future are in the hands of these highly intelligent, empathetic, warm-hearted, fantastic young people, then perhaps there is cause for hope. It certainly gave me some.