I stick my hands in my jacket pockets hoping to find some spare coins and pull my bag tighter around me. “Hey, need some help?” he says jokingly. I smile at him and keep searching my pockets, but loose change is somehow never around when you need it.
“It’s really shameful to ask a young person for money, particularly someone younger than I am,” he says. “I don’t have a problem with it when people are older, but you’re around my age.”
I am 25. He keeps up the friendly chatter and I become less tense, but I always feel pressure in such situations because I don’t know if some harm is going to come my way or not.
“It’s terrible,” the young man continues. “A few years ago you could at least find some kind of job, and earn minimum wage for a day’s work. But now...” He pauses briefly. “It’s Saturday night, and I should be asking you out for a drink, but instead I’m begging money off you.”
Finally I dig up a 2 euro coin. “Here, please,” I say, “and have a nice evening. Who knows, maybe things will change. One of these Saturday nights you’ll be enjoying that drink with a date.” He laughs and moves on.
According to the latest Eurostat figures, Greece has the highest unemployment rate (28%) of all 28 EU member states, as well as the highest number of unemployed people under 25 (61.4%). In absolute numbers, this means that of 1.3 million unemployed people in Greece in the fall of 2013, 174,000 young people were looking for jobs.
I recently followed a discussion on Facebook about job applications and what young people should say about their motivation when answering the question, “Why do you want to work for us?” Somebody suggested, “Because through work I want to get my self-esteem back.” Others suggested replying that they wanted the job to gain experience.
The under-30 working minority
So how are things with the working minority? Meeting friends and exchanging news is always fun, but asking about what they’re doing and how things are going are a bit more perilous these days.
I recently met up with a friend I attended university with and who I hadn’t seen in a year. She had completed her masters degree during that time, and had moved back in with her parents. Going back to live with mom and dad is like a virus in Greece. Young adults are back in the rooms they occupied as kids, sitting on the bed where they used to dream of being grown up, moving out, being independent, and starting a new life.
Like thousands of other young Greeks, my unemployed friend had signed up with Greece’s employment organization OAED. She told me that she started a new job in September. “We were told we would be paid at some point,” she said. But no. She received no money.
“I go crazy when I watch the news,” another friend told me. “It is unbelievable that politicians who decided that we should work pseudo-jobs for five months for no pay to lower unemployment rates are still occupying their positions.” She was referring to the measures applied by the OAED. “And we’re thankful for this! ... But we don’t even have the prospect of regular job and a good life.”
Despite all this, things are going better for Greece. The budget showed a surplus, and this had parliament members cheering. Then again, they don’t seem to care that Greek homes are cold because nobody can afford the exorbitant price of heating fuel.
Some Greeks have chosen very uncertain survival strategies. In December, I read the dreadful news of a teenage boy found dead with his mother. They had been asphyxiated by the charcoal they were using to heat their apartment. Tragically, they’re not the only ones, but after a while the media stop reporting the incidents. What’s most wretched is getting so thoroughly accustomed to the wretchedness.
But spring is approaching. Elections for the European Parliament will be taking place. Unfortunately, I doubt that the anger of young Greeks will translate into more of them voting. According to Eurobarometer data, 46% of Greeks do not vote. Two-thirds of these non-voters say they avoid the polls because it wouldn’t change anything, and that as an EU institution the European Parliament doesn’t deal with their problems anyway.
To be honest, I completely understand them. Firstly, we have demonized the EU. We keep waiting for change that never happens, although we’re working hard for it. But there is also the lack of solidarity. People who claim Greeks are corrupt and lazy are immoral because they are discriminating against a whole nation and don’t know the facts. Present figures indicate that the Greeks work considerably longer hours than other Europeans.
Instead we should put things in context. True, some chasms are huge, but we should become fully aware of them and imagine ourselves in the shoes of the young people mentioned above. In their situation, would you want to go and vote? And if you did, who or what would you vote for?
*Theodora Matziropoulou has a degree in Slavic and Oriental studies and studied international relations and anthropology at the University of Sussex in the UK.