Greece's Unemployed Young: A Great Depression Steals the Nation's Future
Outside an unmarked green metal door in the hallway of a suburban Athens high school, Tina Stratigaki waits for a job interview. It’s a Tuesday in mid-July. Stratigaki, 29, applied for the job as a social worker weeks ago and had taken an hour-long test the Friday before. Based on the list of applicants posted on the wall outside the exam, she estimates there were some 2,000 candidates for 21 open positions. This is the last interview she’s likely to get before Greece shuts down for the summer holidays. Her unemployment benefits—about €360 ($475) a month from her previous job working with disadvantaged women and children—have just run out. “I’m a little bit stressed,” she says.
Jobs of any kind are scarce in today’s Greece. Nearly six years of deep recession have swept away a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product, the kind of devastation usually seen only in times of war. In a country of 11 million people, the economy lost more than a million jobs as businesses shut their doors or shed staff. Unemployment has reached 27 percent—higher than the U.S. jobless rate during the Great Depression—and is expected to rise to 28 percent next year. Among the young, the figure is twice as high. Meanwhile, cuts to Greece’s bloated public sector are dumping ever more people onto the job market. In July, 25,000 public workers, including teachers, janitors, ministry employees, and municipal police, found out they would face large-scale reshuffling and possible dismissal. An additional 15,000 public workers are slated to lose their jobs by the end of 2014.
Greece’s jobs crisis is a window into a wider emergency that threatens the future of Europe. Across the continent, a prolonged slump has disproportionately affected the young, with nearly one in four under the age of 25 out of work, according to the European Commission. (In the U.S., youth unemployment is 16.2 percent.) That understates the severity of the situation in Italy and Portugal, where youth unemployment rates have soared above 35 percent; Spain’s is 53.2 percent, the second-highest after Greece, at 55.3 percent. European Union leaders have announced an initiative aimed at guaranteeing that all young people receive a job, apprenticeship, or more education within four months of joining the ranks of the unemployed. Governments have pledged €8 billion over two years to combat unemployment in Europe’s worst-hit countries, and the European Investment Bank is offering €18 billion in loans to encourage hiring by small and midsize businesses.
Such pledges of help come too late for Greeks like Stratigaki, who are already spending what should be the most productive years of their lives poring over notice boards and alternating long periods of unemployment with all-too-brief periods of work. Absent a rapid and dramatic economic turnaround, an entire generation in Southern Europe faces years, possibly decades, of dependency and disillusionment—with consequences that can’t be measured in economic terms alone. “Our generation has depression,” says Stratigaki. “We are at the best age. We have the power to do everything. And we can’t do anything.”
Personal happiness can often be measured in the difference between what was expected and what reality delivers. Stratigaki and her peers came of age as Greece seemed set to cement its place in the ranks of the world’s richest countries. The 2004 Summer Olympics were presented to the country and to the world as a coming out party for a nation that had long been seen as one of Western Europe’s stragglers. It didn’t last. The global financial crisis revealed deep corruption in the Greek economy and an unwillingness on the part of its fellow European states to continue to prop it up. Greece quickly turned from success story to pariah. Just when Greeks of Stratigaki’s cohort were looking to launch careers and start families, the floor fell away.
In Athens the crisis isn’t conspicuous. Family networks have kept the majority of the afflicted from landing on the streets. Empty storefronts are common, but so are cafes doing a brisk—if reduced—trade. Time has yet to work its fingers into the cracks and weaknesses of the city’s infrastructure. That said, it’s unusual to walk more than a few blocks in central Athens without encountering a knot of riot police, lounging on a street corner with their plastic shields and body armor. During the week of Stratigaki’s job interview, the trash collectors were on strike, leaving garbage piled around the bins. The local police, facing possible job cuts, were demonstrating, crisscrossing the city center in convoys of cars and motorcycles, sirens blaring.
Stratigaki’s struggle to find stable employment has lasted more than half a decade. In high school she was the top student in her class. She studied social work at the Democritus University of Thrace in Northern Greece, finishing her studies in 2007. While there, she held down three jobs, waitressing, bartending, and tutoring to supplement what her parents were able to give her.
Stratigaki’s first job after university was as a bank debt collector in Athens, calling people who owed money on loans or credit cards and haranguing them. She spent eight hours a day being cursed at and insulted; some of her co-workers turned to pills to fight depression. “It was the worst job I have ever done,” she says. Even so, Stratigaki excelled, bringing in payments with a calm and soothing sales pitch. In March 2009 she was finally offered a job in her field, and she leapt at the chance.
Stratigaki was hired by the municipal government of an Athens suburb to help people find jobs and arrange appointments with counselors and psychologists for individuals and couples. The position was perfect except for one thing: She wasn’t getting paid. When she asked, her bosses would tell her that the funds for her position, which were to come from both the local government and the EU, were tied up in red tape.
Desperate for the work experience, she stuck it out. She’d moved back in with her parents and worked nights tutoring students in ancient Greek and philosophy. After 13 months on the job she arrived at the office one day to find a letter telling her she was being fired. She hadn’t received payment for a single hour of work. “The crisis had begun,” she says. This time she was unemployed for more than a year.
In June 2011 she was hired to answer phones at a travel agency, using her French and English to handle calls from abroad. She worked there for six months before finding another job in social work—this time in a government center, working with women and children who were homeless, unemployed, or victims of trafficking. That job, like many in Greece these days, was given to her on a one-year contract. When it expired at the beginning of 2013, it wasn’t renewed.
Since then, Stratigaki has been out of work. She’s living on help from her parents, on her unemployment insurance, and on a partial payment of the money she says the municipality owes her, which she obtained after hiring a lawyer. Her mother has been unemployed since 2011, when she lost her government job. Her father is a clerk at a shipping company. Her brother, 25, studied nursing but works as a handyman, fixing air conditioners and installing car alarms and radios, pulling in about €200 a month.
Shortly after her government contract expired, Stratigaki tried to go back to her job at the travel agency, but there were no positions available. “I feel horrible,” she says. “I sit with my computer, searching, searching, searching.”
Studies of joblessness in the U.S. and Japan have shown that extended periods of unemployment in the early years of a worker’s career can depress earnings for decades. Nikos Kotsalos, 33, has been unemployed since November 2011, when he lost his back-office job at the national postal service. Until then he had never been without a job for more than a few months. In September he expects to finish an undergraduate degree in physics from the National University of Athens—a credential that’s barely sufficient to get an entry-level job. (To cite one example, the government recently announced it will be laying off all university security guards, except those with a master’s degree or a Ph.D.) “Sometimes we are angry. Sometimes we are sad,” says Kotsalos. “I’m 33. It’s not normal that I live with my parents. My father, when he was 33, he already had two children.”
For young Greek adults, the sense that their lives have been put on hold is palpable. Rare is the conversation that ends on a happy note. “It’s not only a financial crisis,” says Marianina Patsa, a 34-year-old Athens resident. “It also has a severe psychological impact. People feel like they’re losers.” Patsa, a successful freelance journalist before the crisis, watched her work slip away in the months following the crash. She now works in a media startup her sister co-founded called Doc TV, earning about €350 a month. “All the rest of the bills go to my dad,” says Patsa. “If my dad wasn’t around, I wouldn’t be around.”
Many are already gone. A study by the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki last spring found that 120,000 professionals with advanced degrees had left the country since 2010. When young Greeks talk about another country, they might mention its weather, its culture, or its language. Almost certainly, they’ll note its rate of unemployment. In February, Elena Vourvou, 29, lost her job in the marketing department of a major pharmaceutical company. In June her boyfriend, Nikos Bogdos, 34, was let go from his position in the supply department of a marine electronics company. The two are moving to London, where they’ve been accepted in master’s programs. “We deserve a better future,” says Vourvou. Adds Bogdos: “My country is going to be where there is work. Wherever there is employment, that’s where I’m going to live.”
Greek society and the education system have done a dismal job preparing citizens to compete in a globalized, technology-driven economy. Up until the crisis, it was the dream of every parent to have their child become a doctor or a lawyer. Now the country has an excess of both. Meanwhile, with the public sector sweeping up many recent graduates, there was little incentive for universities to offer the technical skills companies now demand. The Greek government, prompted and assisted by the EU, has started to roll out measures intended to reduce youth unemployment, including training programs, grants for small businesses, and subsidies for companies that hire young people. But those policies are unlikely to do much as long as the economy continues to sink. “I admit there are structural problems in Greece,” says Theodoros Ampatzoglou, governor of the Greek Manpower Employment Organization, the government agency in charge of tackling unemployment. “But the basic problem isn’t matching labor supply and labor demand. The problem is that there’s very little demand.”
There are signs that the economy is beginning, if not to turn around, at least to plummet at a less alarming rate. After years of bleeding budgets followed by the shock therapy of austerity, the government says it expects to take in more revenue than it spends this year, not counting payments on its loans. “The progress is significant, but it has been achieved with blood,” says Aggelos Tsakanikas, research director at the Athens-based Foundation for Economic & Industrial Research (IOBE). The Greek central bank forecasts the economy to start growing again in 2014.
Some Greek analysts say 2012 marked the peak of the crisis, a year in which a Greek exit from the euro appeared plausible and roughly 30 percent of the country’s top companies slashed salaries or cut working hours, according to a survey by the ICAP Group, a Greek business services firm. In 2012 the average take-home pay for a company director dropped from €105,000 to €63,000, managers’ earnings plummeted from €55,000 to €29,000, and manual laborers’ from €16,000 to €7,000.
According to Alexandros Fourlis, managing director of Kariera.gr, a jobs site owned by Careerbuilder.com, firings still outpace hirings. But the gap is starting to close. In October 2012, after four years of decline, the number of job listings began to increase. At the height of the crisis, in January 2012, there were on average more than 330 applicants for every job posting on his site, compared with a little more than 80 in 2009. For popular jobs not requiring specific skills, such as a bank teller, the number could reach as high as 11,000. Today the average number of résumés a job listing receives is back down to about 160. “The picture is still negative,” says Fourlis. “But it’s vastly improving.”
For her interview, Stratigaki has put on a white blouse and black pants. Gold-rimmed sunglasses hold back her red hair. Open sandals reveal pink toenails. On her left wrist she wears a chain with a tiny glass evil eye, a charm to ward off bad luck. The summer heat has penetrated the interior of the high school. Three young women sit near her outside the green metal door.
Another applicant in white slacks and a white linen shirt paces back and forth, from the hallway into the stairwell. He says his name is George but declines to give his last name. He’s 29 years old, holds a master’s degree in economics, and has been unemployed for a year and a half, not counting the five months he worked as a street cleaner.
“It’s more difficult for the highly qualified,” he says. “The market thinks we will cost too much.” He’s applying for a position as a secretary, a job that requires a high school degree. For a couple of minutes, he and Stratigaki discuss whether his education will be an asset or a liability, and then their names are called.
The position Stratigaki is applying for, a social worker in an office distributing discounted groceries and medicine to the city’s rising numbers of disadvantaged, would be a coup. For one thing, it’s a two-year contract. The salary of €700 a month would be low by the standards of a few years ago but is considered generous in the current economy.
Stratigaki estimates she spends two hours a day looking for jobs, an effort that’s netted her nine interviews in six months. One was for a position as a secretary at an economics newspaper in Athens’s richer southern suburbs. It quickly went off the rails when the interviewer began mocking the working-class neighborhood where Stratigaki grew up.
In addition to three jobs sites, including Kariera.gr, Stratigaki regularly checks the home page of her university’s career office. She set e-mail alerts for positions in her field but has received only two notices. Another alert, for secretarial work, generates mostly spam from companies looking to staff call centers with young people working on commission. Increasingly, many postings are for unpaid internships. Two or three times a week she makes the rounds of the websites of nearby municipalities, checking in the evening, when she’s learned that they usually refresh. Sometimes, to break the monotony, she meets for coffee at the home of close friends to go through the listings together. “It’s expensive for us, as unemployed people, to go to a cafe,” she says.
With the rest of her time, she helps take care of her parents’ house and that of her boyfriend, Stelios Siderakis, 32, who moved back from London in 2010 to be closer to Stratigaki and to his father, who died of cancer last year. She recently began studying photography, shooting mostly landscapes but brainstorming with her classmates about earning some money shooting weddings and baptisms. The one thing she and her boyfriend don’t want to do is leave Athens, unless it’s to move to the island of Chios, where Siderakis has family. “I don’t know why,” says Stratigaki. “Maybe I’m afraid. Or maybe it’s the fact that I’ve always found something sooner or later.” Siderakis, a chef, has had relatively little trouble finding work, though his paycheck has shrunk with every new job. “I’d feel like I was betraying my country” by leaving, he says. “I have friends who have left, but they didn’t have any other options. The jobs they were doing were gone. I know that I can make it somehow or another.”
When Stratigaki, George, and two other women emerge from their interviews, all four say they’re happy with how things went. They compare notes on the way down the stairs. Greece shuts down in August, even in this time of crisis, so Stratigaki didn’t expect to hear back about the interview until September, but the interviewers tell her they plan to make their decision by the end of July. “Now it’s time to wait,” she says. “This is the hardest part.”
In the meantime, the job hunt goes on. Two days after the interview, Stratigaki drops by her old travel agency to book a couple of ferry tickets to Chios. She takes the opportunity to ask once more about getting rehired. The answer, again, is no.