Outside an unmarked green metal door in the hallway of a suburban Athens high school, Tina Stratigaki waits for a job interview. It’s a Tuesday in mid-July. Stratigaki, 29, applied for the job as a social worker weeks ago and had taken an hour-long test the Friday before. Based on the list of applicants posted on the wall outside the exam, she estimates there were some 2,000 candidates for 21 open positions. This is the last interview she’s likely to get before Greece shuts down for the summer holidays. Her unemployment benefits—about €360 ($475) a month from her previous job working with disadvantaged women and children—have just run out. “I’m a little bit stressed,” she says.
Jobs of any kind are scarce in today’s Greece. Nearly six years of deep recession have swept away a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product, the kind of devastation usually seen only in times of war. In a country of 11 million people, the economy lost more than a million jobs as businesses shut their doors or shed staff. Unemployment has reached 27 percent—higher than the U.S. jobless rate during the Great Depression—and is expected to rise to 28 percent next year. Among the young, the figure is twice as high. Meanwhile, cuts to Greece’s bloated public sector are dumping ever more people onto the job market. In July, 25,000 public workers, including teachers, janitors, ministry employees, and municipal police, found out they would face large-scale reshuffling and possible dismissal. An additional 15,000 public workers are slated to lose their jobs by the end of 2014.
Greece’s jobs crisis is a window into a wider emergency that threatens the future of Europe. Across the continent, a prolonged slump has disproportionately affected the young, with nearly one in four under the age of 25 out of work, according to the European Commission. (In the U.S., youth unemployment is 16.2 percent.) That understates the severity of the situation in Italy and Portugal, where youth unemployment rates have soared above 35 percent; Spain’s is 53.2 percent, the second-highest after Greece, at 55.3 percent. European Union leaders have announced an initiative aimed at guaranteeing that all young people receive a job, apprenticeship, or more education within four months of joining the ranks of the unemployed. Governments have pledged €8 billion over two years to combat unemployment in Europe’s worst-hit countries, and the European Investment Bank is offering €18 billion in loans to encourage hiring by small and midsize businesses.
Such pledges of help come too late for Greeks like Stratigaki, who are already spending what should be the most productive years of their lives poring over notice boards and alternating long periods of unemployment with all-too-brief periods of work. Absent a rapid and dramatic economic turnaround, an entire generation in Southern Europe faces years, possibly decades, of dependency and disillusionment—with consequences that can’t be measured in economic terms alone. “Our generation has depression,” says Stratigaki. “We are at the best age. We have the power to do everything. And we can’t do anything.”
Personal happiness can often be measured in the difference between what was expected and what reality delivers. Stratigaki and her peers came of age as Greece seemed set to cement its place in the ranks of the world’s richest countries. The 2004 Summer Olympics were presented to the country and to the world as a coming out party for a nation that had long been seen as one of Western Europe’s stragglers. It didn’t last. The global financial crisis revealed deep corruption in the Greek economy and an unwillingness on the part of its fellow European states to continue to prop it up. Greece quickly turned from success story to pariah. Just when Greeks of Stratigaki’s cohort were looking to launch careers and start families, the floor fell away.
In Athens the crisis isn’t conspicuous. Family networks have kept the majority of the afflicted from landing on the streets. Empty storefronts are common, but so are cafes doing a brisk—if reduced—trade. Time has yet to work its fingers into the cracks and weaknesses of the city’s infrastructure. That said, it’s unusual to walk more than a few blocks in central Athens without encountering a knot of riot police, lounging on a street corner with their plastic shields and body armor. During the week of Stratigaki’s job interview, the trash collectors were on strike, leaving garbage piled around the bins. The local police, facing possible job cuts, were demonstrating, crisscrossing the city center in convoys of cars and motorcycles, sirens blaring.