Greek Youths Expect Years Of Austerity

But European unity also seen as opportunity

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

WHEN Stratos Papaioan-nou considers the future, he draws a distinction between his own prospects and those for his country.

Like many young educated Greeks, the first-year shipping- administration student in Pireus, the port city near Athens, describes his own future optimistically. "I'll do well because I'm willing to work hard," he says.

But also like his peers, his tone darkens when he speaks of Greece. The country faces deeper economic problems than most of its citizens realize, he says, and must accept a long period of social adjustment and sacrifice.

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"I'm in a sector where Greece is strong so I'll do fine," says Mr. Papaioannou, "but I'm scared for my friends and the country in general. Things will definitely get more difficult before they get better."

This optimism toward one's personal prospects amid a general outlook of gloom is prevalent among the generation of Greek youth now considering career and employment possibilities. It reflects in part a dawning realization that their country faces years of economic austerity if it is to put its economic house back in order and prepare - amid widespread European doubts - for the European Community's monetary union slated for later this decade.

Yet it also suggests young Greeks realize that individual effort will be increasingly prized as Greece weans itself from reliance on the state and mounting government spending that characterized the Greek Socialist Party reign in the 1980s.

"The future is not very good for all of us together; Greece faces so many difficulties," says Despina Bakari, sharing an ice cream with a sister and a friend in Athens's Syndagma Square. "But for each individual I think it is brighter because reward for personal effort is getting better."

The situation Greece's youth face is strikingly different from the one that greeted even the generation before them.

Papaioannou, Ms. Bakari, and their peers grew up during a decade when the public sector increased its share of the economy from 30 to 70 percent, and during which growing numbers of families came to depend on a government job.

At the same time public-sector debt exploded to surpass the country's annual gross domestic product.

Now the conservative government of Prime Minister Constantine Mitsotakis is trying to reverse those habits. Plans include cutting 40,000 public-sector jobs, or just under 10 percent of the total, over the next two years; accelerating an ambitious privatization program that until recently was moving at a snail's pace; and modernizing an antiquated and grossly uneven tax-collection system.

At the same time, this generation will confront the EC's single market, with its imposition of increasingly competitive economic conditions, as well as growing competition from the former communist countries of Eastern Europe.

One of the single market's provisions is the free movement of people within the Community, something many Greek youth consider a sign of a new era of opportunity. "Professors try to scare us by saying better-prepared Europeans will come to take our jobs, but I see it another way," says Papaioannou. "If you're good, you now have 12 countries to find the best job in."

Others say the single market will make it easier for them to get away from a Greece that is not changing fast enough.

"I'll go to Germany or the US for an MBA, but I definitely won't stay here," says Maria Katsarou, a second-year business administration student.

Sitting in a cafe in Athens's fashionable Kolonaki district, Ms. Katsarou says the Greek mentality will have to change before the country really pulls out of its difficulties. "Greeks are the kind of people who say, `We are going to do this and this,' and then they do nothing," she says.

Pointing to her boyfriend John, she adds, "Greek young people are loufa, - that means if they can avoid work, they will."

With a wry smile, John Georgakopoulos responds, "I'm not exactly loufa, and I think a lot of young people want to be more educated so they can change things here."

The Greeks are already among the best-educated people in southern Europe, the percentage of college-educated people in the work force surpassing both Spain and Portugal. "I do feel Greek, though," Mr. Georgakopoulos adds, "and I'd like to be able to stay here. But even though the government wants to change things, I'm not sure the opportunities will be there."

Despite the harsh terms in which they describe their country's future, most Greek youth say they want to work and live in Greece, despite new options for going elsewhere.

"I don't expect things to get better here, in fact I see the opposite," says Andreas Velaxiotis, a fourth-year electrical engineering student. "It's difficult to find a job in the field you trained for."

Revving up his motorcycle outside Athens's National Garden, Mr. Velaxiotis says he nonetheless prefers "to stay in Greece and try to do something for me and my country." In other countries "the system works better to give people more opportunities," he adds, "and that's the way I'd like us to go in Greece." Part 2 of a 3-part series. Last article appears Monday.

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