Greek Youth Uncertain

As Greece's outlook remains dark, students are emigrating, seeing little hope for sufficient investment in their future

An angry mob

An angry mob: Police fend off protesters at a school parade marking Greek ­Independence Day in Athens on 24 March | Photo: APA/Alkis Konstantinidis

The crisis in Greece is usually described in economic terms – as a matter of national debt and a budget deficit. But fiscal issues derive in part from more fundamental, historical problems in Greek society – a malfunctioning educational system and widespread corruption.

These same problems are the ongoing cause of an ever increasing “brain drain” which is further exacerbating the crisis. A study published in December 2011 by one of the country’s leading newspapers, To Vima, showed that as many as 85% of Greeks between the ages of 18 and 35 currently describe themselves as feeling worried, hopeless or frustrated. The study was called Our Parents are Feeding Us, We Want to Leave.


The lesser of two evils

A representative sample of young middle class Greeks reveals the students attending intensive language courses at the Italian Institute of Culture in Athens. Almost all are learning Italian so they can study in Italy. The most immediate reason is the difficulty of gaining a place in overcrowded disciplines at Greek universities, such as Pharmacy and Medicine. Unfortunately, some of this overcrowding reflects pressures to make choices for reasons other than personal interest.

Andreas Rhoditis is a typical example: Forced to study Pharmacy by his parents to take over the family business, he would prefer to go into business for himself, as a mechanic. Thus the unsuccessful applicants are often pushed into unrelated fields. Manolis Galanomatis and Adriana Giannakou both complain that they “wasted” a year on a course they disliked before applying abroad.

These faults in the educational system feed back into it: For graduates of the oversubscribed faculties, entry into the corresponding professions is highly competitive and secondary school teaching is one of the few practical career options available. In Greece no pedagogical training is required to enter the profession, so high school students are often taught by disinterested and underqualified staff. This, in turn, nurtures a tradition of disrespect and lack of discipline which has reverberations throughout the society as a whole. Most recently this was reflected in a school parade celebrating a historical anniversary of the liberation Ioannina from the Ottoman Empire on the 21 February. A group of students raised their open hands as they passed the officials. In Greece this gesture is a sign of extreme disrespect.


Working abroad

But the basic reason for moving abroad is the declining availability and quality of employment. Evaggelia Stergiou, a graduate in Greek literature, was registered on a nationwide waiting list for school teachers for months before eventually being assigned a part-time post as a substitute on a salary which hardly covered her travel expenses. More recently she was offered a full-time post at a school in the Peloponnesian town of Tripoli requiring her to commute to her home in Athens on weekends. She is studying Italian in order to attend a teacher-training course at an Italian university in the hope that the additional qualification will improve her opportunities. But she and her husband are simultaneoulsy applying for work abroad and she frequently expressed her  desperation to leave.

Students are also deterred by the inefficiency and corruption prevalent in many professions. “The problem is that even if you want to earn money honestly, they don’t let you,” complained Panagiota Pavlidi, an archaeology student. While some students, like aspiring architect Manthos Thomaidis, would consider returning to Greece after graduating “depending on the situation”, others like Panagiota are deeply pessimistic. The future of Greece is “very ugly”, she said, shaking her head.  Although she has no plans as of yet, she would advise others to think objectively, to leave the country and search for work in, say, America or Europe.


For lack of a plan

The ultimate reason for this sense of hopelessness is the lack of leadership, and what interviewees described as a scarcity of politicians in the main political parties proposing feasible strategies in response to the crisis or any clear objectives for the country in the future. Consequently, in the 6 May elections votes were cast impulsively and without conviction. Nineteen-year-old pharmacy applicant Chrysoula Ritsou had said that “of course” she would exercise her right to vote, but afterwards admitted she had been perplexed by the choices. Similarly Maria Verantzerou, a 28-year-old midwife, had only made her final decision with the ballot in her hand. “None of the parties represent my views,” she said, “and the differences between them are not ideological.”  In other words, she had seen no clear choice.

As a result, most parties define themselves by either supporting or opposing Greece’s debt restructuring programme and by assigning blame for the crisis on others. They present it as a purely national problem, so that the costs to other European countries are disregarded. Furthermore, the fundamental socioeconomic causes of the crisis are obscured. The result is that many have the impression that the country could continue to function as it did before the crisis, leaving young Greeks in particular feeling victimised, cheated of the prospects their parents enjoyed. This frustration is fuelled by the sentimental and misleading rhetoric of the politicians and the media.

One of the dangers of this communal frustration is the persistent inability, fostered by fear,  to objectively assess the country’s situation. For example, supporters of popular parties such as SY.RIZ.A. are convinced that the debt restructuring programme and the austerity measures it prescribes can be completely cancelled without exiting the EU, despite nearly overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This leads to the casting of “angry votes” in support of extreme parties. Thus, in the elections of 6 May the neo-Nazis of The Golden Dawn won 7% of votes, which until recently would have been unthinkable. Alarmingly, a survey by the polling firm “Public Issue” showed that, the highest proportion of Golden Dawn voters were between 18 to 24 (14%), followed by those 25 to 34 (12%). One reason may be the image, described by Maria Verantzerou, of it being the only party that “means what it says”.

Ultimately, the difficulties young Greeks are facing demostrate the failure of the country’s educational institutions. Contemporary Greek society does not seem to value education as an end in itself or adequately cultivate and instil social consciousness in its youth. Thus many see it as not only wasting its most precious asset, but also destroying its greatest resource for self-correction and renewal.

Nevertheless, the crisis is stirring many of these Greeks to express their views, and take action collectively in their communities and in the political process. In the recent election the newly formed polical party Dimiourgia Xana (Recreate Greece), that seeks to involve more non-politicians in governing, won 2.2% of the vote.

As the old order collapses, Greeks may well be increasingly empowered in their efforts to reform their country.

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