Greece's crashing economy drives the young and educated towards the exits
Roughly 3 percent of Greece's population, mostly skilled labor, have emigrated seeking economic opportunity since 2010. Anecdotal evidence indicates the trend is accelerating.
Athens — For Nikos Bouras, enough was enough.
A few months ago, Mr. Bouras finally decided to quit the country of his birth – joining an exodus of educated young Greeks seeking opportunity and stability.
Bouras's quest led him to The Netherlands, a country far removed from the economic turmoil that has engulfed his home nation since 2009. On Aug. 1, he will start his new job as an electrical engineer.
“I was thinking about leaving before January, but I made the final decision in March, after seeing the developments this year,” Bouras says. “Two of my best friends are leaving later this year too. Many others have already left.”
According to government statistics, around 350,000 Greeks, roughly 3 percent of the population, have left since 2010, with the vast majority of them under the age of 35.
The last six months have delivered more blows to the economy. The extended wrangling over a fresh bailout package, concerns about a possible exit from the euro, and the temporary closure of the country's banks mean GDP will almost certainly contract again this year. The austerity measures Greece will have to agree to in exchange for its third bailout won't help, and some are saying that it could be the worst brain drain in modern history.
“Up until 2010, people were leaving Greece to find jobs with higher prospects, higher wages, or just wanting an adventure. Now people are leaving because they are desperate. They are falling out of the country,” says Lois Labrianidis, a professor of economic geography at the University of Macedonia in Thessaloniki, who has been studying the emigration of young Greeks. “I’m a university professor. All the bright young people I have around me are leaving the country. They see no prospects in Greece.”
A rush for the doors
Unemployment remains stubbornly high in Greece, with an estimated million jobs lost since 2009. Those who do have jobs have found that they often need to work longer hours and wait weeks or months for their paychecks to arrive.
Most sectors of the Greek economy are being affected by the departure of skilled labor, but the problem is particularly acute in areas like healthcare. Other countries, especially in the European Union, are more than happy to take in trained doctors and offer them the stability and career opportunities. An estimated 5,000 doctors have left Greece since 2010.
Engineers and academics also have little difficulty finding work outside of Greece.
“This is a major blow to the Greek economy and Greek society,” says Professor Labrianidis.
In the last month the situation has worsened, experts say, due to the capital controls put in place that limited bank withdrawals to 60 euros a day, and to the referendum, where Greeks overwhelmingly rejected austerity measures. Despite the referendum, international lenders remained intractable and the government ultimately bowed to more spending cuts, disappointing Greeks further.
“This period is the final kick for those who have families and close ties in Greece, they don’t see the future here,” says Stavros Antoniou, managing director at Grecruitment, a recruiting firm that helps Greek engineers and doctors find work abroad.
“We’ve had four times as many people come to us in the last month,” he says, adding that they are increasingly seeing people coming to them looking to leave immediately. “The philosophy has changed a lot in the last weeks. People are not looking for a better career opportunity but just something to stabilize their lives,” he says.
'Back at the beginning'
For those that have chosen to stay in Greece these last years, hoping that the situation will get better, it is particularly tough. "The community of young people who decided to stay in Greece feel betrayed,” says Dimitris Kalavros-Gousiou, 27, co-founder at Found.ation, a technology hub, who returned to Greece in 2010 after studying in the UK.
“It was very easy for them to have gone,” he says. “It feels like we spent three or four years, spent our energy, our effort, our resources and here we are again, back where we were at the beginning of the crisis.”
Kalavros-Gousiou says he has no plans to leave as yet, but feels the brain drain will have a profound affect on Greece and its future.
“This is the absolute last chance we have as a country for the next generation, for the next 30 or so years,” he says.
Others feel it isn’t too late to close the floodgates.
“The brain drain [from Greece] has been going on for years,” says George Ioannou, a professor of economics at the University of Athens. “How long this situation lasts is the critical thing. If it continues, or the government fails to pass or implement reforms, it will be a huge problem.”
However, for many it is already too late, and any talk of an improving situation in Greece, or of a better economic reality in the country in the near future, seem like a far off dream.
“All these measures won’t do anything," says Bouras, the electrical engineer on his way to The Netherlands. “I think in three years we will be in exactly the same position, starring again at a Grexit.”