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Young Greeks pose a challenge for government

'Generation 700,' Greeks in their 20s and 30s who are highly educated but face high unemployment, are criticized by their elders for lacking initiative. They counter that the system has failed them.

June 12, 2010|By Megan K. Stack, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Athens — The Greeks call it "Generation 700": a mass of highly educated twenty- and early thirtysomethings stuck in amiable insolvency, living with their parents, drifting from coffee shop to coffee shop with companions they can't afford to marry.

From their settled perches, the elders criticize and cluck. The young, they say, have either no initiative, a dearth of opportunities, or some combination of the two. They fear that young people will be unable to start their own families and they fret over the prospect of Greece's demographic undoing.

The catchall nickname for Greek young adults comes from the sum that had been, before sweeping austerity measures, a typical entry-level monthly salary — 700 euros, or about $860.

But Generation 700 is more than a pay grade; it's also, in the Greek imagination, a question that demands an answer from an overburdened government. Many Greeks say this generation is the first in decades that faces fewer jobs at lower pay, leading to a declining standard of living and less upward mobility than their parents enjoyed.

Even before the crisis came to a head this spring, economists estimated that about a quarter of this generation of Greeks was unemployed.

"Parents dream of their children becoming doctors or lawyers, so they made a lot of sacrifices for education," said Paulina Lampsa, international secretary for the ruling Panhellenic Socialist Movement party. "Now they have a lot of degrees but no jobs."

It's a predicament that spans the continent, a quiet underside to the perception of stability and growth brought by the creation of the European Union. In Italy, unemployment among the young is comparable to that in Greece, and the figure in Spain tops 40%. Even Britain and Germany are logging significant struggles against a similar rising trend.

Economists talk about a "lost generation" searching for a toehold in the workforce, weighed down by advanced degrees and even higher expectations.

Olga Stefou is 20. She speaks passable English and studies political science. These days she goes into the streets to shout slogans against the government and the International Monetary Fund. She has no choice, she says: She believes that upon graduation she'll be lucky to land a job that pays $500 a month.

"I'll be forced to live with my parents and work three jobs," she said, pausing among the throngs trickling into the street as a recent demonstration got underway. "I'll be doomed to a fate I haven't chosen. This is the state of my generation."

Stefou believes that the government is bound to respond to her discontent. And she has suggestions: Greece should make up its budget shortfall by pulling its 122 troops from Afghanistan and levying steep taxes on the Orthodox Church rather than squeezing the workers, she says.

The government is "in some way afraid of us," Stefou said with a shrug. "There are too many of us."

A hot spring night was creeping over Athens. Thousands of demonstrators packed the street; many of them looked to be about Stefou's age.

They marched in a slow circle down Stadiou Street to Parliament and then back again, yelling slogans: "Down with the junta of the IMF!" "Euro is here and it makes you poorer!" "Thieves, thieves, banks, stockbrokers and politicians!"

Doormen in uniforms stood on the stoops of fancy hotels and watched the protesters pass. A few hapless tourists struggled to wheel their suitcases through the crowds.

Riot police trailed behind, keeping their distance. Last of all came the street sweepers, scrubbing away any lingering signs of the demonstration. After a couple of hours, the streets were back to normal, packed with tourists, merchants and homemakers.

To hear some critics tell it, the discontented young are a living metaphor for what ails Greece in general: fattened on the indulgences of a doting system, unwilling to make hard sacrifices, lacking in self-starting spirit.

"What I'm really worried about is that you have a culture totally bereft of entrepreneurial ideas," said Takis Michas, a prominent Greek journalist and longtime critic of what he has called "the last Marxist state in Europe."

"People, especially young ones, are not taught to love entrepreneurship, but to hate it," he said.

Last year, Michas did a study of Greek marriage agencies. He found that the top attribute sought by middle-class young women in a potential mate was a job in the civil service or the military. Government service has long been prized because of the elaborate set of benefits attached to the position.

"This is the mind-set now," Michas said. "It's a culture of dependency, first on parents, and it becomes a dependency on the state."

Tell that to Nick Tsiagkas, 33, who left a full-time job and used his savings to open a boutique hotel in the mountains a few months ago. The hotel caters mostly to Greek tourists. But they aren't showing up anymore, he says; they're not even calling to ask about rates.

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