Greece's Youth Brace For an Uncertain Future

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Yiorgos Karahalis / Reuters

Protesters take part in a rally against austerity in front of the parliament at Syntagma square in Athens June 30, 2011.

"It's not much of a future," says Georgia Nikolopoulou, who's 28 and has an advanced degree in marine biology. After a two-year search, she could only find work at a clothing shop that's about to go under; six months later, she still hasn't been paid. "We only see dead ends, even though we have studied hard to make lives better for ourselves. Many of my friends are leaving Greece. I think I should, too, but for the moment I am going to stay here and fight."

After a dramatic week in which Greek lawmakers passed tough and unpopular new austerity measures, the country must resume cost-cutting as it pulls itself out of its worst recession since the 1970s. It's going to be an especially tough slog for young Greeks like Nikolopolou, many of whom are already jobless or underemployed. According to the Hellenic Statistical Authority (ELSTAT), Greece's unemployment rate has doubled in the last three years to 16.2%. But it's more than 42% for Greeks between the ages of 18 and 24, and 22% for those between 25 and 34.

Since late May, Nikolopoulou has joined the sit-in, anti-austerity protest at Syntagma, the square across the street from parliament. The so-called aganaktismenoi, or indignants, have modeled their movement after the indignandos in Spain, where youth unemployment is a whopping 44.3%. Though the demonstrators represents a cross-section of Greece, including pensioners and middle-aged workers, the young Greeks involved in it are among the most energized, says Ioannis Tsarmougelis, an economics professor at the University of the Aegean. "The older Greeks in this movement are fighting because they don't want to lose what they have worked for," he says. "But younger Greeks are fighting to have a future."

Most of the militants who challenged police during the demonstrations this week were Greeks in their teens and 20s. Mary Bossis, a security scholar and professor at the University of Piraeus, has said the economic crisis has also fueled a social crisis that feeds anti-authoritarian violence by young Greeks who are literally taking out their frustrations on a society they consider broken. "Older people attack tolls and let the cars go by freely without paying tolls. That's their idea of resistance, and that's not violent," she says. But some young people join social movements "against the government, against the decision of any European government, against everything," she says. "And sometimes this comes out violently."

Ilias Kikilias, head of Greece's employment agency, OAED, told the Greek daily Kathimerini that it would have been tough for young Greeks even without the financial crisis. He says the number of new university graduates has doubled in the last two decades, and that the labor market cannot absorb them.

Some studies say the unemployment rate is expected to keep rising until 2015, which means many young Greeks will be shut out of the job market for years. Prime Minister George Papandreou has publicly fretted about a "brain drain" of Greece's young intellectuals. There are concerns that more Greeks who leave to study abroad won't return, since the country's service-oriented economy relies on cheap labor, according to research by economic geographer Lois Lambrianidis, a professor at the University of Macedonia. On July 6, Lambrianidis will present his research at a debate in Athens titled "I'm Leaving: A Generation's Dilemma." Elias Demian, a 28-year-old freelance environmental policy consultant, suggests those fears are well-founded. "Even those of us who have jobs, and I count myself very lucky to have a job, are extremely worried," he says. "If I lose my job, I don't know if I would find another one in this market."

Demian supports economic reforms such as opening up closed professions like law and engineering, decreasing bureaucracy in starting businesses in Greece and downsizing and reinventing the public sector so those jobs go to those with the best qualifications, not the best political connections. He hoped the first set of austerity measures introduced last year would seed those changes. But after Greece teetered on the verge of default a year later, he wonders if the government is moving quickly enough to implement those reforms.

"If we have no money as a country, we have no power to negotiate with the Europeans, with anyone," he says. "I believe Greeks would rally to support measures if the measures showed results. I know young Greeks would like to see their prospects change in this country. But we have to see results, not stagnation. This is not the future we're dreaming of."