On a recent Saturday night, several hundred students staged a protest in front of a bar. A waitress, some of the students said, had been fired for requesting overtime, and they stood outside the establishment — fittingly named Revolt — calling out workers’ slogans.
Members of a group known as Against Modern Slavery, the demonstrators were almost all younger than 30. They remained outside Revolt for several hours, soberly chanting in a square ringed by taverns and weekend revelry.
As Greece threatens to default on a key International Monetary Fund payment this week, the headlines are filled with abstract lingo such as debt restructuring and tax code reform. But gatherings of this type suggest a more existentially desperate reality for young people in this nation of 11 million.
“We remember being at the kitchen table and our parents talking about when times were good,” said Iro Pappa, a 22-year-old engineering student attending the protest. “But I don't know when we'll experience it ourselves. How do you outrun a crisis?”
Greece’s economic woes will soon enter their eighth year, its staggering debt that began accumulating five years ago compounded by government austerity measures and the international financial meltdown of 2008. That is an eternity in the life of a young person, and Greek youths today exude a generational pessimism found in few European countries since the Cold War. Many don't even recall a time when life was good — and lack the reasons or imagination to think it ever will be.
They have felt the effects of a decimated job market — the economy has contracted by a quarter since the crisis began — as well as the austerity measures. More than half a dozen austerity packages dating to 2010 have raised taxes on income and consumption, cut public sector jobs and unraveled welfare measures; they have continued despite the presence of a radical-left government that has promised to roll back austerity.
Disillusioned, young people are coalescing into what analysts view as a distinct social group.
“I think what we are seeing in Greece is a lost generation,” said Kevin Featherstone, a professor at the London School of Economics who is an expert on modern Greek society. “There's a despondency about their own future and their place within Europe that a previous generation never had. Those attitudes will stay with them when they're 30 and 40 and beyond.”
Their protesting, he noted, may be born as much of a need for purpose as the conviction that they can change the system.
The financial statistics are daunting. The youth unemployment rate in Greece tops 50%, double the already high national average. The Greek minimum wage is calculated separately for young people, so even those who do have jobs tend to make less than their older counterparts.
An abundance of regulations also seems to target the young. This includes a requirement that freelancers, of which young people constitute a disproportionate number, pay nearly $1,000 annually for the right to be self-employed, regardless of whether they make a cent doing so.
Youth homelessness is skyrocketing, as is substance abuse. In more hardscrabble parts of town, the presence of people using intravenous drugs on the street can be jarring to outsiders who imagine the debt crisis largely as the domain of officials in Brussels.
But the despair isn't limited to such stark examples. A hand-to-mouth existence, young people say, is the norm for a group that has never known the relief of, much less had the opportunity to save during, flush economic times.
“You know by now not to take jobs with the companies that have no cash and won’t pay you for six months or a year,” said Alex Salame, who works as a TV producer. “Of course that means you don’t have a lot of options of where to take jobs.”
Matters have grown bleak enough that one of the twentysomething founders of a civic engagement group that was designed to pull Greece out of the crisis is considering leaving the country.
Stephania Xydia, a Cambridge-educated entrepreneur, returned to Greece in 2011 to start the nonprofit Place Identity. The organization and its affiliate, Imagine the City, have won international contests for their innovative proposals to reimagine a society that has been mired in bureaucracy and corruption.
But Xydia, 28, said she is days away from letting go the half a dozen employees at the nonprofit because funding has dried up and no new projects are on the horizon. Then, she said, she may leave Greece.
“Some days I just want to cry,” Xydia said as she sat in her office, her normally feisty spirit cracking. “We deserve better than this.”
She recalled a friend who calculated that he could survive in Athens on about $13,000 a year as a freelancer — and then found that after fees and taxes he'd be left with just $5,000.
The crisis is not limited to the young. But older Greeks have the historical memory and psychological wherewithal to ride out the tough times. They also might have some money stashed away.
A moment after Xydia spoke, a colleague, Mary Karatza, walked into the room.
“You just have to live for the now and not think about the future,” she said, a statement that would have been more convincing had Karatza not been six months pregnant.
Faced with the challenges, some see a silver lining.
The streets of Athens are newly filled with buskers. Musicians say a creative spirit can take root now that young people are free of material concerns.
“They say Athens is the new Berlin, and I think there's a lot of truth to that,” said Thomas Arlo, 25, a California resident with Greek roots who recently returned to the country as a street musician. He sat with his guitar near an empty apparel store and laid out his view. “I think you have to look at it that way. Greece today is like a new girlfriend: It takes a while to forget the old one, but once you do, life is better.”
Still, the arts take money, and even creative spirits accustomed to living meagerly say they can run out of options.
Constantina Georgiou arrived from Cyprus, following a historical trend among young Greek Cypriots to move to the larger country, in the mid-2000s. She founded her own theater production company and had been building it steadily. Then the crisis hit. She was 27, with no savings. She began taking more menial jobs.
Today she pieces together a living working on low-level freelance producing projects for companies outside Greece that can actually pay her — one in Wales and another in Denmark and Sweden.
“I don't want to leave, but thankfully there's the Internet, because the only way to stay and make money is to find work outside of Greece,” she said.
How far-reaching the effects of these factors will be remains to be seen.
Greece has already been hit by a brain drain, a phenomenon more common among the mobile young.
As part of the Schengen Agreement, Greeks can move freely within Europe, a luxury many have taken advantage of. Though they must compete for jobs in places where they don’t speak the language, as many as 200,000 have already sought their fortunes elsewhere since the crisis began.
And with a dispirited or absent youth core, Greece, whose population has already aged significantly in the last few decades, could have a harder time rebuilding even if there was an economic recovery.
Those who remain in the country could also shape a new political reality. With little to lose, support for an exit from the euro common currency is higher among young people, and experts such as Featherstone fear that “without a narrative of a forward-looking, centrist Europe, young people may be drawn to the political extremes.”
For now, more immediate concerns prevail.
As he sat at a cafe, Georg Ilas, 20, a student at the science-oriented Athens Polytechnic, said he was debating his options after graduation.
“I don't think I'd leave Greece, but the government doesn't give us much of a choice,” he said.
Across the table, his friend, Smaragoloc Vlocchochi, also 20, ventured an opposing thought. “Yes, but we can't always blame politics,” she said. “I think we have to try to make a better life for ourselves. Because, if not, no one else will do it.”