Is Emigration the Only Solution For Greece's Youth?

On December 6, 2008 a Greek police officer shot dead a 15 year-old boy, setting off social media-fueled youth riots across the country. Images of Athens aflame and riot police battling protestors hand-to-hand in a sea of tear gas lit up television and computer screens across the world, fascinating the American media.  

The pain of the moment belied a much deeper frustration Greeks have with their society.

You can still find graffiti scrawled in Athens’ concrete jungle proclaiming “Revolution the only solution” in Greek, English, and likely a number of other languages I don’t understand. 

Three years, thousands of broken windows and Molotov cocktails later, emigration seems a more viable solution than revolution.

There may be a silver lining though for both Greece and its young people. Greeks ages 25-34 have, often unwittingly, prepared themselves for a life abroad by earning undergraduate and postgraduate degrees and learning multiple languages. Their skills would be a boon wherever they land and a source of revenue for Greece – if they can find someplace to go.

Wasted Youth

The 700 euro generation had little idea they would be the 592 euro generation a year-and-a-half later, reduced to the punch line title of a Greek TV sitcom (700 euros, or just under $1,000 give or take exchange rates, is about what the average Greek under age 35 makes in a month).

In both Greece and the U.S., the December Riots were seen as a harbinger of things to come as expectations collided with the global economic downturn. The reasons were vastly different.

The American media used the riots as the first images of public fury over the global economic crash, long before Occupy Wall Street. The December Riots look like a footnote now in the grand scheme of the European Debt Crisis but those riots had little to do with Lehman Brothers.

For Greeks, December 6 was like a match on gasoline. Beyond the statistics (always a bit suspect in Greece) the hope of the country’s youth had long been slipping away.

The entire system seems rigged against success.

Universities operate at cross-purposes, educating many but failing to prepare graduates for a workforce where everyone has to enter with experience and leadership skills. Life is even bleaker outside the confines of academia. Men have to serve in the army for nine months for less than $100 total. Until they do, they’re almost unhireable. Women are spared national service but confront pervasive gender discrimination. Both sexes face some of the longest working hours and low wages in Europe (despite what you see on SNL). Meritocracy is unheard of, nepotism runs rampant and the labor climate leads to sycophancy in the work place.

The destruction and violence wrought by the December Riots may or may not have discredited Greece’s youth but the lack of results from all that fury speaks to how bad the situation is there. Snap elections in September 2009 led to the new government revealing a figure somewhat resembling the country’s true debt. Greece’s fudged books sparked a series of ratings downgrades and set the wheels in motion for an international bailout in May 2010 and another in June 2011.

Τime to go

International investors have yet to take a haircut on Greek debt but the Troika of the IMF, EU, and European Central Bank essentially imposed a 108-euro per month pay cut on Greece’s young workers. That first bailout package included a provision lowering the minimum wage for workers under 26 to 592 euros per month, supposedly to facilitate their employment.

The plan has been an utter failure. Youth unemployment (ages 22 to 34) has almost doubled from 22% in 2010 to 40% in 2011.

In September 2010, the New York Times cited a poll that found four out of 10 college-educated Greeks were looking abroad for employment. By October, setimes.com reported that number had jumped to seven out of 10. History will show that figure sky-rocketed on November 1 when former Prime Minister George Papandreou inexplicably called for a referendum on a hard-fought deal to bail Greece out yet again. New Prime Minister Lucas Papademos was appointed strictly to deal with the country’s international creditors; competent, maybe, inspiring, no. Greeks didn’t get to elect their premier but they can vote with their feet.

Greece’s young people can better help themselves and their country by packing their bags.

The trade is simple, in theory.

Greeks, well-educated and often bi- or tri- lingual, go abroad for better careers and send home money instead of drawing upon (paltry) state services. Even if skilled workers depart, the high unemployment rate suggests their vacancies would be filled quickly, averting a drop in tax revenue. Remittances would help offset Greece’s current-account balance since foreign direct investment (FDI) has dropped in the last two years. Families struggling with wage cuts and tax hikes would get some relief.

There are, of course, huge caveats.

Where exactly can this hypothetical third wave of Greek emigrants go in light of the international economic climate and stricter visa controls in a post 9/11 world? Will the capital Greeks take with them hurt the banking sector too deeply in the short term?

One possibility is Germany. The industrial powerhouse of the European Union that is simultaneously Greece’s savior and the bane of its existence needs engineers to fuel its booming manufacturing sector. Bankers can head to the United Arab Emirates and check out other gulf states. Australia has been active with information sessions in Athens about migration and job opportunities, particularly in that country’s Western territories. Education offers a major, albeit expensive opportunity. Thousands of Greeks already study in universities abroad and may simply not come back.

These aren’t the answers young Greeks were looking for three years ago. But if revolution isn’t the solution then emigration may have to do.

Photo Credit: Athanasios Deligiannis