When I think of the words “Greek immigration” I am reminded of when thousands of Greeks came to America from 1900-1930 escaping war and bad economic times. Almost one hundred years later I’m talking about the same topic. However, these new waves of immigrants are bright, educated graduates looking for opportunities they cannot find in Greece.
For those of us that are Greek Americans most of us see a different Greece than those that live there. Our time is filled with visits with relatives, seeing the islands, and looking at tourist attractions. We spend anywhere from two weeks to one month in Greece and then go home. We are somewhat detached from day to day life in Greece. That fact has become very evident in my understanding of the challenges Greek youth face.
For the last three months I have had the pleasure of meeting students from Greece studying at best universities in the San Francisco area. Many of these students are studying for a Master’s Degree or for their Doctorate. They are so intelligent and full of ambition. I want them to succeed and when I look at them I see the next generation that will lead Greece. The difficult part is to make sure that these smart boys and girls come home again but what does Greece have to offer these students who have succeeded with their studies abroad?
I asked one student “What do you want to do after you finish your education?” I thought that they would return home, get a job, or start a business. The student answered “There are very few opportunities for me in Greece. I could start a business or become a government employee. Starting a business in Greece is too difficult and I do not want to be a beaurocrat. I am going to start a business in Bulgaria where the laws are better and I can still do business in the Mediterranean.”
I asked another student the same question. The student answered “The opportunities are better outside of Greece. I could go to a country in the European Union or the United States and get an excellent job. In Greece, I might have a good education and still be unemployed. Getting a good job is like winning the lottery.”
The unemployment rate among Greek youth is over 20%. There are a variety of reasons that caused this but the primary reason are government policies that haven’t worked. Many occupations are dominated by an elderly establishment which has made sure that long service is well rewarded and kept bright educated university graduates in their place.
The minimum monthly wage in Greece is 700 euro per month. It is very common for a university graduate with a masters degree or even two masters degrees to receive the minimum wage. On 700 euro per month you can barely survive in Athens. In Greek newsletters and blogs they have become known as the “700 Euro Generation”. This group has become more vocal in expressing their dissatisfaction with the current government.
On December 8, 2008, a student was killed by a police officer. Days of rioting followed and it was the worst civil unrest since the restoration of democracy in 1974. The shooting was a tragic event but not the sole cause of rioting. Tension had been building over failed economic policies, rising unemployment among Greek youth, and a perception of corruption in Greek state institutions.
If Greek society is to thrive, it will have to find ways of harnessing the talents of its young people—by investing more in the education system, by persuading those who have studied abroad to return to Greece, by finding decent jobs for them, and by curbing the special-interest groups that dominate many areas of Greek life and get in the way of bright young people.
Change is needed. Of course, as a Greek – American I would like to see these students go back to Greece to find their path in life. However, if they choose not to go back and stay in America there will be thousands of Greek Americans who are waiting to welcome this new wave of Greek immigrants with open arms.