Greece has the highest percentage of unemployed young people in Europe, but many are finding innovative ways to make a living
Angelos Koulis doesn’t like the term “lost generation” but he accepts that, in theory, he is part of it. Like many young Greeks, the 19-year-old is the first to say his future looked unbearably bleak, bereft of a job or any prospect of work, until he decided to become a break boy.
“I weighed up my options and thought I can sit on my behind or do something I really like,” he says, recalling the moment when he decided breakdancing was the way forward.
“And I’ve never looked back,” he enthuses after a particularly energetic dance on Ermou, Athens’ main shopping boulevard. “On a good day we can earn as much as €60 each. There are six of us so that’s €360. It doesn’t happen often but when it does we’re like ‘wow’ because it’s much more than we could ever get doing anything else.”
Greece’s youth unemployment rate at 64.2% is the highest in Europe. The figures have given way to a crushing recognition that it is the young who are paying hardest for the crisis in Greece. Inevitably, many feel hugely betrayed by a state that in racking up debt to meet short-term policy aims has played havoc with their future.
“No politician told us the truth,” says Eleftheria Rapti who is enrolled at the University of Thessaloniki where she is studying to be a vet.
“They waited until the very last minute to tell us that Greece wasn’t the country we thought we knew, that basically it was bankrupt,” she sighed, rueing the fact that at 21 she is still forced to live with her parents. “You could say we are angry and disappointed and, well, furious, really.”
For many, mass migration or further education have been the answer. But Rapti is among those who do not want to join the exodus that has already seen about 120,000 young professionals emigrate – mostly to Germany and other countries in the eurozone’s wealthier north but also as far as away as Australia, Canada and the US.
“I want to stay in my country even if I am not convinced that I’ll be able to,” she says. “I’ve decided I’ll take an extra degree to make myself fitter for the market.”But force of circumstance has pushed growing numbers to think outside the box. Exploiting their flair for enterprise and entrepreneurship – a spirit doused by decades of dependence on state largesse – young Greeks are also behind an explosion of bars and restaurants nationwide, but especially in Athens.
“The crisis has allowed us to be much more creative,” says Kanella Anapoglou, a graphic designer who returned to Athens from London eight years ago. “It was like an African state here. To get on, you had to belong to a tribe,” she explained, sitting in a newly opened pastry shop that she helped design, with a view of the Acropolis. “Now that a lot of big companies have collapsed and no longer have the monopoly it’s opened up a whole new space.”
Around the corner from where Koulis, the breakdancer, keeps the crowds enthralled, scores of young Greeks visit the headquarters of Athens’ co-lab workspace every day in the quest to start “innovative, game-changing start-ups”. In an atmosphere that is cool, eager and deadly serious, they sit behind computer screens, exchanging experience, ideas and advice. What bonds them is the desire to create technical companies that will break the mould.
For Spiros Kapetanakis, who co-founded the lab two years ago, the crisis has taught the young software engineers sitting around him “not to waste time”. “The majority will fail but everyone is hungry for success,” he says. “They come in and sit at desks or in rooms they can rent by the day or month literally for hours.”
Stavros Messinis, his partner, puts it another way. “The crisis has levelled the playing field,” he says. “Young Greeks are on their own and they’ve become much more imaginative in taking steps, risk and destiny into their hands. They’re not a lost generation. They are the future of this country.”