Wasted talent: Greece's young unemployed majority
- 23 March 2012
- From the section Europe
More than half of young people in Greece are unemployed, the worst record for any eurozone country. Many feel abandoned by the state and are frustrated and angry.
Emilio Papas opens the tall iron door to his squat near Exarhia Square, in the centre of Athens, to reveal an enormous five-storey building with high ceilings and a grand staircase.
"It was a health hazard for the whole community, full of dead birds, rancid water and maggots," he says about the abandoned social security office, which he now calls home.
In the past few months the number of jobless in Greece has shot up. The current total for young people stands at 51.1%, and Emilio Papas is one of them.
He smiles as he admits that the irony of the situation has not escaped him: living in a former social security office when neither he nor any of the other squatters has ever made any national insurance payments.
Last year Mr Papas and a group of his unemployed friends, aged between 18 and 32 years old, spent several months making the building habitable.
Each of the squatters has his own flat and they are planning on using the ground floor as a community centre for the neighbourhood.
They have also opened their doors to an older resident, 60-year-old George Koutselas, who would otherwise have been left homeless.
"I worked most of my life but none of my bosses ever paid national insurance contributions for me, so now I don't get a pension or any benefits.
"As far as the Greek state is concerned I don't exist," says Mr Koutselas.
Unemployment benefit in Greece is available only to people who have made national insurance contributions and since many young people have never had a job, they are not entitled to any financial support.
Even those who do receive the monthly payments of 360 euros (£300) see them stop after one year.
After that, unemployed people in Greece are on their own, without access to financial support or free healthcare.
Talk of 'revolution'
27-year-old economics graduate Eleni Katsarea is unemployed and worried she might not have a job when her benefit runs out in a few months.
"I am trying not to think about it because I get too stressed," she says.
The first person in her family to go to university, she never imagined she would end up dependent on the state.
But today one in three graduates in Greece is without work and unemployment among postgraduates has doubled.
"I have a degree, I speak several languages and I have something to offer the country but they don't let me, there are no opportunities," says Ms Katsarea.
When she is not looking for work Eleni Katsarea goes to the centre of town where there are demonstrations almost every day.
"I would like to see a public audit of this debt they are asking us to pay. Who got all the money? Because it wasn't us," she shouts over the noise of the protest.
The talk among her and her friends is of revolution.
Nick Maltoutzis, the deputy editor of the daily English language paper, Kathimerini, says that Greece has reached a dangerous point in terms of youth unemployment.
He says too many young people are locked into a situation without prospects, without jobs and without political parties that represent their views.
"There is clearly a lot of anger building up in the system and you cannot predict how the pressure is going to express itself - but you can be sure it will not be pleasant," he says.
The frustration with the lack of employment opportunities among the young is only exacerbated by the feeling that they have been abandoned by a state which offers them little support.
Local unemployment offices are shutting down as a result of cuts in public spending, and those that are open offer little or no advice on how to find a job.
The general secretary for the Ministry of Labour, Anna Stratinaki, admits that the ministry is battling to get to grips with plans for the total restructuring of the public sector.
"Young people need to show endurance, courage and solidarity so that we can overcome this difficult period together," she says.
But endurance, courage and solidarity do not pay the rent and so, for many over-educated and under-employed young people, the future is abroad.
Although there are no statistics for the numbers leaving the country, research from 2010 suggests that nearly 85% of Greeks studying abroad were not planning to return.
At Athens International Airport 25-year-old Grigoris Panayotopoulos is checking in his baggage as he prepares to fly to Trieste in Italy where he has a job as an engineer lined up.
"Who knows, maybe 10 years from now I might decide to leave behind the job and return to Greece, but at the moment I am planning on going there forever."
It is not his fault, he says, that the Greek economy is in crisis, so why should he pay the price?
As he leaves, Grigoris Panayotopoulos takes with him his skills and education. The risk for Greece is that this brain-drain could leave the country without the very people needed to rebuild the economy.
'Scars' of unemployment
But for many young people who do not have the means to leave, like Emilios Papas at the squat in the abandoned social security office, they are out on their own.
He estimates that at least 70 former government buildings around the city are being used as squats.
"People need to start doing things for themselves because the state only has its own best interests at heart," he says.
In reality there is little the Greek government can do about the lack of jobs, so long as its hands are tied by the promises it has made to cut the deficit in return for bailout funds.
There is evidence to show that people who are unemployed for a long time in their youth have less confidence and tend to achieve less in later life. Experts call this the "unemployment scar".
So could Greece be storing up a troubled generation for the future?
Nick Maltoutzis at the newspaper Kathimerini fears that could be the case.
"People in their 20s… will end up feeling useless and then it's very difficult to change the psychology," he says.