Business

Greece's young: Dreams on hold as fight for jobs looms

Greek students study in class
School leavers will enter a jobs market where almost seven out of 10 young people are out of work

Greece's school exam season has arrived. But for many now facing the final-year tests known as the Panhellenics, the stress is twofold: last-minute cramming and the knowledge that they'll soon enter the worst jobs climate in Europe.

At 64.2%, youth unemployment in Greece is the highest in the continent. Those between the ages of 16 and 25 are now the crisis generation.

At the Spoudi school in Athens, dreams have been put on hold. The school leavers longed for a stable job, for a future full of opportunity. But instead, unemployment and uncertainty beckon.

In a final maths class, students pore over complex algebra problems. But how to stay positive in today's Greece might just be the most difficult equation to solve.

"I'm not sure about my future," says Nathalie Sheldon, an 18-year-old who hopes to study economics. "I think I won't stay in Greece because there's high unemployment and bad salaries. A lot of kids my age feel the same. If we're here and nobody gets the life they want, why should we stay?"

Among the other students, few are optimistic. One thinks of leaving Athens for the countryside, another of going into farming because of a lack of opportunities.

"In Greece today you can't do what you want," says Alexandros Delakouras, 17. "It will be very difficult to get a job in my country but I will try hard." He adds with a smile: "Maybe, with God's help, I'll succeed."

Before Greece's first bailout three years ago - and the spending cuts that ensued - unemployment in the country was under 12%. Now it's at 27%.

And among the youth, it's more than doubled from around 31% in May 2010. Recession has hit hard but it's the austerity demanded by the country's international lenders that has had such a devastating impact.

Brain drain

And so the brightest, like 23-year-old law graduate Christina Zahagou, are leaving. Greek emigration to Germany jumped by more than 40% last year. She is now following suit after failing to find work.

"I don't want to leave my friends and family," she says. "Abroad I will struggle to find friends, at least in the first year. But I have no other choice. It's a sacrifice I'm willing to make because I can't find anything hopeful here in Greece."

The brain drain is quickening. A recent study by the University of Thessaloniki found that more than 120,000 professionals, including doctors, engineers and scientists, have left Greece since the start of the crisis in 2010.

And when young, talented Greeks are emigrating, it spells trouble for the future. An ageing population and declining birth rate could stunt Greece's longed-for growth.

"The economy won't recover," says Christina, "because the educated ones will go abroad and only the older people will stay here. That means Greece can't develop."

Positive action

But some young hopefuls are fighting back. The youth start-up scene here is growing fast. One success story is Glovo, recently launched by a group of twenty-something entrepreneurs. The company finds and trains volunteers for large events, and won funding from investors in a recent start-up competition.

At Art Athina, the capital's international art fair, a few dozen volunteers perform a range of functions, including welcoming visitors and providing information about enigmatic paintings. Co-founder Aris Konstanidis tells me young Greeks must not accept the scourge of unemployment.

"Many people think the financial crisis is a dead end," he says, "but I think it's an opportunity to go out of our comfort zone, shape our future and get rid of all the old negative ways of doing things."

His is a refreshing approach to the problem of youth unemployment, though it is still a rare voice of optimism.

"Many young people in Greece are afraid of trying new things. They do what their parents advise. But now you can't get a job like that.

"We want to mobilise young people to stand on their own two feet. They - we - must become the leaders of Greece."

A Glovo volunteer at Art Athina
Glovo's trainees work unpaid at big events, but gain valuable work experience

Even though most of its young workforce is unpaid, the can-do attitude is catching.

Konstantinos Angelosopoulos, 21, has been volunteering for Glovo for five months. He says he's trying to get as much experience as he can.

"I think of the jobless situation all the time. But this is the only way to overcome the crisis. We have to go forward and fight. If we stop and ask what's happening or what am I going to do, nothing will improve."

Traditional attitudes are being profoundly shaken by today's climate - and that could be for the better. But tackling the crisis head-on requires energy and luck, and many here lack both.

This ancient nation is full of youthful vitality. They are the ones the country needs to keep to rebuild it in years to come. But for now they are too often stranded by the crisis - left jobless or pushed abroad, the lost generation of today's Greece.

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