Financial Crisis and COVID-19: The Issues Faced by Young People in Greece
Illustration Credit: Holly Woodhead

Having spent the majority of my summers travelling around Greece to visit family, I have recently found more opportunity to engage with my heritage and understand the differences between my life (a young Greek person living abroad) and that of my peers who have grown up in Greece.

Many young people around the world, especially in light of the global pandemic, face uncertainty surrounding their futures. In Greek society, however, for many years young people have been facing uncertainty with issues of rising levels of unemployment and poverty. In a society where there is a great focus on family and the connections a family has, nepotism is heavily relied upon as a means of securing a stable future, a concept that the current government is attempting to dismantle.

Greece’s economic failure has been the country’s focus for the last decade. The realignment of the middle- and lower-classes, and the misuse of resources by the government led to a financial situation that was far beyond repair by the mere implementation of a strict austerity policy. As a result of the failure of the government to reduce budget deficits, this crisis has led to huge distrust and disappointment in politicians, and has forced many young Greeks to flee the country in an attempt to find work elsewhere. Of course, this crisis affected the whole population, however it is clear that its most detrimental impact was felt by the young. From 2008-2016, 4% of Greece’s citizens emigrated, over 400,000 people, and although the ages of those who left the country was not recorded, it is clear that the population is getting older with the average age of the country having increased by more than four years since 2008. In 2012, Giorgios Christides, a Greek journalist, said that Greek people love their country and that “many would return the second they thought they could find a worthwhile job and good prospects back home”. That said, even finding permanent employment would mean leaving behind the life you know or had planned. As a result, the young citizens of Greece make up what is often referred to as a ‘lost generation’, where individuals are hesitant to plan anything due to the anticipation of an inevitable failure of the actualisation of those plans. Employment rates in Greece have plummeted. Since its economic crash roughly a decade ago Greece has had the highest levels of unemployment in the EU. In 2013, during the peak of the crisis, the unemployment rate for Greeks aged 15-24 was at 60%  and more recently in 2019, four out of ten young people were unemployed. Understandably, thousands of young Greek people left Greece to seek employment in other countries, and many of them have been left with little faith in politicians promising to improve lives for their generation.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Prime Minister of Greece, is making such promises. Upon taking office, Mitsotakis led the first ‘post-bailout’ government, representing the beginning of a new age which aims to distance itself from the economic deficit and psychological trauma of the past decade. One of his first acts was to reduce the practise of nepotism – he banned government officials from appointing relatives to posts (a rule he has been seen to contradict as he himself is the son of Konstantinos Mitsotakis, a former Prime Minister, and the brother of Dora Bakoyannis, a former mayor of Athens). The Prime Minister himself left Greece when he was young, studying in the US and moving to London to pursue work in finance before returning in 1997 to work for Alpha Bank.

Last summer, the Prime Minister’s New Democracy party promised to lower taxes, a plan of reinvestment, and more attention targeted at the private sector. He hoped that his policies would help Greece progress and counter the cynicism felt by many young Greeks as a result of the incongruity between the revolutionary narrative and a lack of systemic change that has been evident for years. Mitsotakis stated that he “want[s] to see this people prosper. I want to see the children who left to return”. Today, Kyriakos Mitsotakis’s response to the recent COVID-19 outbreak has meant that Greece has recorded only 187 deaths, in contrast to the chaos seen in other European countries such as Britain, France and Italy. This relative success is the result of decisive leadership and early enforcement of strict measures, with the support for Mitsotakis’s government soaring as the curve is seen to be flattening.

It is not all positive, however. The consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic will cause further suffering for Greece’s youth. Certainly, the government took action long before COVID-19 reached Greece, having witnessed the devastation in Italy. Restrictions began at the end of February and Mitsotakis collated resources and established a committee of infectious disease experts and epidemiologists.

Now, despite the positivity and trust felt by the people of Greece towards the government, the country faces a new issue – how they are going to save the summer. At the time of lockdown being imposed, Greece had just started recovering from its eight-year economic crisis, making this an important time in defining the future of the country, its financial situation and its people. About 25% of Greece’s GDP and one in five jobs are attributed to tourism, and so there is a new crisis looming with 65% of hotel owners admitting that the bankruptcy of their business is “likely”. The quarter of the workforce reliant on tourism will suffer with Theocharis, the Minister of Tourism, having revealed that the earnings for the country from this year’s tourism will be below half of what it was in 2019 . In order to keep tourism afloat this summer, adjustments are having to be made for those visiting. On Greek islands, for example, any individuals who have tested positive will be placed in designated quarantine areas, sun loungers on the beach will remain spaced apart, and hotel buffets will be banned. These measures in place will protect the residents and the holidaymakers, but it will also pose problems for the businesses. The President of the Halkidiki Hotel Association, Grigoris Tasios, stated that “under the present conditions, one out of two hotels will not open this year… it’s not realistic to not have a buffet or leave the rooms vacant for a day or two in between bookings”.

From the outside, Greece has dealt with the virus successfully. Yet, it is evident that its population will be hard hit. The economy is estimated to contract in 2020, likely having further detrimental effects on the country’s unemployment rate. With a quarter of the people in Greece relying on tourism for their income, many young people who travel to the islands to work over the summer will be faced with yet another crisis: where will they find work?