Greece’s Youth in Crisis

Greece’s youth is facing staggering unemployment rates—and little prospect for their future. Nick Malkoutzis wonders what their future may hold. (Hint: Not much.)

Kostas Tsironis / AP Photo

Sotiris Pastras gave up a career as a champion swimmer to pursue something more practical: a job in the media. But since the 25-year-old Greek student enrolled in a media studies course in Athens last year, about 350,000 people have lost their jobs, taking the country’s unemployment rate to a frightening 18.4 percent.

Greece now has fewer people in work than those who are either unemployed or retired. For young Greeks especially, the figures are devastating: 43.5 percent of those under 25 are without jobs. But youth unemployment is rising throughout the European Union, where more than 5 million young people are out of work.

The timing that served Pastras so well that he swam in the 2004 Athens Olympics at the age of just 18 has deserted him.

Since last year, Greece has been sucked into a vortex by the debt woes that are now threatening the very foundations of the euro. The crisis has been ripping through all kinds of industries in Greece, including the media. Plummeting advertising revenues and a lack of liquidity have led to the closure of several national and regional newspapers, radio stations, and TV channels.

“I thought that I would get my degree and start working as a journalist, earn a salary, and no longer be reliant on my parents,” says Pastras. “I can see that won’t happen now, and that hurts.”

Pastras, who still holds Greece’s national record for the100-meter butterfly, knows that his prospects out of the pool are unlikely to improve soon. Greece is fighting off a disorderly default thanks to emergency loans from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. The country agreed to a 110-billion-euro package last May and its new prime minister, Lucas Papademos, a technocrat whose interim government received a vote of confidence last week, is negotiating a second bailout of 130 billion euros to ensure that Greece can go on paying its bills and remain in the euro. Papademos travelled to Brussels on Monday to convince European Union officials to release a loan installment of 8 billion euros—funds that Greece needs by mid-December to avoid running out of money.

Continued EU-IMF assistance will come with the same strict terms that have led the Greek government to impose the most stringent austerity program Europe has seen for at least three decades. Greece is being forced to overhaul its inefficient public sector, implement deep structural reforms, and carry out a rapid fiscal adjustment so it can produce a budget surplus by next year. But public spending cuts and tax hikes have deepened Greece’s recession, which is about to complete its third full year. As dozens of businesses close every day, job opportunities for young Greeks are vanishing.

Pastras left his home city of Volos in central Greece to travel some 200 miles south to Athens so he could complete his degree and find work. But a study conducted by Labrianidis shows that many Greek graduates are now prepared to leave the country altogether to get a job. Greece’s last major wave of emigration was in the 1960s—but that tide was made up of blue-collar workers who were departing for factory jobs in countries like Germany. Lois Labrianidis, an economic geographer at the University of Macedonia, says that Greece is now facing a brain drain. The researcher found that since the crisis began, more than half of Ph.D. holders have left the country, along with well over 10 percent of graduates.

“Unfortunately, it will get a lot worse,” says Labrianidis. “The economic crisis is creating a never-ending circle that means we are losing our best minds, which will make it much more difficult for the country to move forward.”

“This is our homeland and we should try to make a future here, but the odds are against us,” says Pastras, who recently saw one of his best friends move to Melbourne, Australia, to find work.

Unemployment figures around Europe indicate that young people in other countries are likely to face similar challenges to Pastras and his friends. The average jobless rate for under-25s in the European Union is 21.4 percent and has been rising over the last few months as more countries grapple with the burgeoning economic crisis. The United Kingdom announced last week that it has almost 1 million unemployed young people, meaning the rate has reached 21.9 percent—the highest since 1992. The most worrying figures are in Spain, where 48 percent of young Spaniards are out of work.

Spaniards elected a new, center-right government on Sunday. One of the main tasks for the country’s new prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, will be to push through labor market reforms. As in Greece, Spain’s complicated labor laws often create an inflexibility that safeguards those currently working at the expense of those looking for jobs, particularly the young.

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Andrew Watt, a senior researcher on employment policy at the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI), says that labor regulations in many European countries mean that older workers’ jobs are protected, while younger employees become more expendable as they are hired on fixed-term contracts that employers allow to expire. Over the past two years, for example, the Greek government has failed to renew about 100,000 fixed-term contracts, many of which were held by young people.

These practices have compounded the damaging effect of the economic contraction on the job market, which followed the U.S. financial crisis. “Authorities failed to prevent the European economy from sliding back into stagnation—and possibly a depression—once it had emerged from the [financial] crisis,” says Watt.

Europe is beginning to feel the effects of the rise in youth unemployment. Earlier this year, a movement of young people called Los Indignados, or The Indignant, emerged in Spain to protest the lack of opportunities and political accountability. These demonstrations have been mimicked in several other European countries from Greece to Italy and France. However, many young Europeans are choosing not to hang around to protest, but to leave their homelands in search of work.

“There is already considerable evidence that the crisis is affecting migration flows,” says the ETUI’s Watt. “There has been return migration back to Poland, for instance, from the UK and Ireland. In Spain, there has been a return of both non-EU and EU migrants. And, there are signs of natives leaving countries like Ireland, Greece, and Spain.”

The challenge for much of Europe is the same as the one for Greece: to overcome the current debt-fuelled crisis and build a competitive economy that harnesses innovation to create jobs. “This isn’t a momentary phenomenon,” says Labrianidis, who argues that—like many European countries—Greece developed an economy that was driven by unsustainable consumerism rather than investing in innovation. “Our economy is not focused on making products that require expertise or scientific knowledge. We need to change our growth model. But this will take several years.”

In his first address as prime minister, Papademos announced more than 20 programs aimed at boosting employment. Pastras, who says he was watching the speech closely, hopes that this is just the first step in a concerted drive to create jobs. Just like millions of other young Europeans facing diminishing job prospects, he is looking for a good start in what promises to be the toughest race of his life.