By Michael Nevradakis
Last month, the Athens daily newspaper Ta Nea commissioned five Greek design studios to create a poster aimed at promoting Greece during this time of crisis. The results, perhaps unintentionally and certainly subconsciously, reveal much about the modern-day Greek psyche:
The above poster, created by Greek design studio Beetroot, is ostensibly geared towards attracting visitors to the country. According to Beetroot, “Greece as a state is sinking and decomposes every day while its future is uncertain. At the same time Greece as a place remains beautiful and unique to its visitors and residents.” In describing Greece as a state that is “sinking” and which “decomposes every day,” however, it is natural to question whether this poster is, in fact, depicting Greece not as a country for tourists to visit, but one to avoid. A country that is sinking doesn’t typically conjure up images of relaxation and hospitality, but instead, images similar to those seen in the international media’s portrayals of Greece in recent months: unrest, riots and protests in the streets. It is also revealing in a different manner: it is demonstrative of the pessimism, negativity and fatalism which is prevalent in Greece today.
Further examples abound: in a recent interview with the Greek magazine “Ego,” Maria Menounos, the Greek-American actress and television presenter who is best known for her work as a correspondent for Today and Access Hollywood, stated her interest in eventually making Greece her permanent home. Menounos, who came to Greece over the summer to host the opening ceremony of the Special Olympics, which were held in Athens, described her love for the country and her desire to one day live in Greece.
One could interpret Menounos’ desire to return to Greece as an example of the very close ties so many Greeks of the diaspora maintain with their homeland, and an accompanying desire to support Greece even in its most difficult moments. German-owned Alpha TV (one of Greece’s largest private television networks) had a different take, however. Reporting on the interview during its celebrity-laden “newscast,” Menounos was heavily ridiculed for her interest in moving to a country whose residents all wish to leave. One could say that Alpha TV, through the tone of its report, portrayed Menounos (and by extension, anyone else who might harbor thoughts of living in Greece someday) as delusional, while reflecting the status quo school of thought commonly seen in the country today that people are better off leaving the country, rather than staying—or, for that matter, moving to Greece from abroad.
Old mentalities die hard, and in hearing many Greeks describe their country, one could detect an overriding attitude, a prevailing sentiment that views Greece as a “banana republic” and “uncivilized,” and that everything is better overseas, in other “civilized” countries. Perhaps this contributes to the rampant xenomania prevalent in Greece: ranging from the use of “Greeklish” instead of the Greek language to the all-encompassing preference for seemingly anything foreign, from food to music to looks.
In a sense, this mentality has always been present in Greece. Successive waves of immigration out of Greece throughout much of the 20th century and into the 1970s has resulted in a mentality which has continued to linger, that the “grass is greener” overseas. Old mentalities die hard, and in hearing many Greeks describe their country, one could detect an overriding attitude, a prevailing sentiment that views Greece as a “banana republic” and “uncivilized,” and that everything is better overseas, in other “civilized” countries. Perhaps this contributes to the rampant xenomania prevalent in Greece: ranging from the use of “Greeklish” instead of the Greek language to the all-encompassing preference for seemingly anything foreign, from food to music to looks.
This mentality has, not surprisingly, become increasingly common as the economic crisis in Greece has worsened, and one does not even need to look as far as the media to be exposed to such pessimism and negativity. During two different taxi rides in Athens in May, the drivers, upon realizing that I was from overseas, questioned why I chose to come to Greece. “Why are you here?” I was asked. “Leave now, as quickly as you can!” Another driver interrogated me about job opportunities in the United States, evidently because he had emigration on his mind. When I would mention that I was in Greece to perform academic research but also because it was my homeland, people looked at me, quite simply, as if I were crazy.
I could not escape this pessimism even back in the United States, even in faraway Texas. At a farewell party I recently attended for two Greek-American students who were graduating from my university, one of the students expressed an interest in taking six months or a year to go to Greece to teach English, grabbing the opportunity before adult life and a career got in the way. A student from Greece who was part of the conversation, however, warned her against such folly. “Don’t do it, you won’t like it,” he exclaimed. “Greece is only good for summer vacations.”
In a recent survey conducted by Nielsen, Greece emerged as the most pessimistic country in the world, just ahead of Portugal and Hungary
Perhaps this negativity shouldn’t come as a surprise. The unemployment rate in Greece is officially over 16%, while unemployment in the 18-24 age bracket is at 42%. Educated young people, many of whom have advanced degrees, are unable to find work. “For rent” signs have become commonplace on many storefronts throughout the country. Salaries have been slashed and pensions reduced as part of the EU and IMF-imposed austerity measures passed by the government. Under such conditions, pessimism has flourished, as have desires to abandon Greece and start a new life overseas. In a recent survey conducted by Nielsen, Greece emerged as the most pessimistic country in the world, just ahead of Portugal and Hungary, while India, the Philippines and Indonesia were the world’s most optimistic nations according to the same survey. Meanwhile, over 53,000 Greeks have applied for a Green Card to relocate to the United States, while there have been numerous reports appearing in the Greek media over the past several months on employment opportunities in Germany, Australia, Canada, and elsewhere.
In thinking about this issue, I have some personal experiences of my own which I could share. One of my friends, who has completed a Masters degree and has an impressive resume, has been unable to find full-time work for over two years, and has, for the time being, settled for a part-time position with no job security or chance at promotion and little pay, at his former university. Another friend, a talented graphic artist, has spent the past two years slicing cold cuts in a supermarket and previously worked at a clothing store. A third friend recently moved back home with his parents after years working on his own in the financial sector, a fourth has moved to four cities in three months looking for work, and a fifth has spent a good portion of the summer also looking for work despite a highly qualified résumé. This sounds like the everyday reality of the young people of Greece—except that these examples are not from Greece, but from the United States.
Greener pastures are not always to be found elsewhere, and the problems that Greece faces are, to a large extent, problems that are shared by a number of other countries in the world which are experiencing their own financial crisis.
As the example above illustrates, greener pastures are not always to be found elsewhere, and the problems that Greece faces are, to a large extent, problems that are shared by a number of other countries in the world which are experiencing their own financial crisis. And while there is reason to be discontent with the present situation in Greece, it seems that much of this discontent stems from a long-entrenched inferiority complex which many Greeks possess in comparing themselves and their country to the outside world. One of the timeless traits of the Greek people is the tendency to exaggerate, leading to such statements as “we [Greece] don’t produce anything” (which is completely untrue in reality) or that “we are a poor country” (Greece is actually in 22nd place in the United Nations’ 2010 Human Development Index, ahead of the United Kingdom, Italy and Austria). Such a mentality is counterproductive, and holds the country back, for when you believe in something strongly enough and repeat it frequently enough, it often evolves into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In order for Greece to get back on track and indeed to reinvent itself, the people of Greece will need to reinvent themselves too, and particularly, reinvent their mode of thinking and their outlook towards their own country. Instead of looking to leave, for instance, young Greeks should consider staying in Greece and fighting for a better tomorrow—for themselves and for the country as a whole. And instead of seemingly every young person wanting to become a doctor, lawyer or scientist—fields in which Greece has a surplus of professionals, leading to unemployment amongst many young graduates in these areas—employment opportunities could be pursued in the many sectors of the Greek economy which, even today in the midst of a serious financial crisis, are practically begging for new workers. Angel investor and private equity professional Aristos Doxiades (who was recently interviewed by the Reinventing Greece team) has identified a number of sectors, ranging from shipping to agriculture, which offer good salaries and which are in strong need of additional workers but which, for reasons of status and lifestyle, are shunned by young Greeks (and their families). Indeed, 37 percent of Greek employers are having trouble recruiting workers.
Doxiades further highlights the potential of entrepreneurship and the development of small businesses as a way to move the country forward. While in many other countries Greeks have proven to be exceedingly successful entrepreneurs and businesspeople, in Greece, operating a small business is not viewed as highly as a prestigious job working in an office, emergency room or a laboratory. As a result, opportunities abound for small businesses to develop and to flourish, even during a time of crisis. Surely, the thirst for prestige as well as the vast system of patronage which led many to aspire for a permanent civil service position stunted the growth of entrepreneurship in Greece, as has the high degree of bureaucracy that has traditionally been involved in starting a business. And during a time of crisis, it can be argued that people just do not have the money to invest in a business—though many Greek households do seem to be able to find the money to pay for “frontistiria” (private tutoring schools for their children), or to pay for expensive tuition at overseas universities once their children are ready to begin their university studies (Greece sends the most students abroad, per capita, for university study than any other country—also contributing to Greece’s “brain drain”).
If young people begin to leave the country in droves, who will be left behind in Greece to help bring the country out of its current crisis? Who will vote, who will pay taxes, and who will help shape and determine Greece’s future?
In addressing the issue of Greece’s “brain drain,” Panteion University professor Nikos Leandros, in an interview with the Reinventing Greece team, stated that ultimately the decision of whether or not to stay in Greece or go overseas is a highly individual one, depending on one’s own personal circumstances and set of values. However, he dismissed the notion that it is the best solution for everyone or that there are no jobs or opportunities to start a career or business in Greece. Presently, seven out of 10 young Greeks are considering leaving the country, according to a recent survey. While I do feel that spending some time abroad would, in fact, be beneficial to most Greeks and to the country as a whole, in order to attain ideas and experience and to observe, first-hand, both the positive and negative attributes of another country and a different way of life, I believe that many young Greeks should give their country—and themselves—another chance. This, however, can only happen if Greeks can overcome their incredible pessimism and negativity and work to bring about positive change. For if young people begin to leave the country in droves, who will be left behind in Greece to help bring the country out of its current crisis? Who will vote, who will pay taxes, and who will help shape and determine Greece’s future?
Greece is a country with potential and, indeed, a future. Such potential and such a future can, however, only be realized through positive change. A change not just in the political or economic system, but a change in the social and intellectual realities of the country as well, and a willingness to overcome old mentalities and old habits and to work collectively to build a better nation. Instead of emulating anything and everything foreign and instead of Greeks escaping to supposed greener pastures elsewhere at the first sign of difficulty, Greece has the potential to become a nation that is worthy of emulation by the rest of the globe. While there are many good ideas from abroad that Greece can indeed benefit from, change ultimately has to come from within. And change can only happen from within if Greeks give their country a chance—and then get to work building a better and more prosperous society.