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Young Greeks Seek Options Elsewhere

In two weeks, Alexandra Mallosi, 29, will be packing her bags and leaving the quiet Athens suburb of Holargos for Abu Dhabi to start a job as a hotel sales manager. It was not a tough decision.

Angelo Cavalli | Photodisc | Getty Images

Her experience in the Greek hotel industry had left her frustrated. “In other countries, young people are encouraged,” Ms. Mallosi said. “In Greece, they are held back.”

Like Ms. Mallosi, an increasing number of young college graduates are leaving Greece as a deepening recession chokes a job market already crippled by an entrenched culture of cronyism.

And the outlook for a turnaround is not good. The national debt, estimated at 300 billion euros (nearly $400 billion), is larger than Greece’s gross domestic product, suggesting that years of austerity budgets lie ahead.

On top of that, a string of political corruption scandals has left many young Greeks disillusioned about the future.

According to a survey published last month, 7 out of 10 Greek college graduates want to work abroad. Four in 10 are actively seeking jobs abroad or are pursuing further education to gain a foothold in the foreign job market.

The survey, conducted by the polling firm Kapa Research for To Vima, a center-left newspaper, questioned 5,442 Greeks from the ages of 22 to 35.

Some, like Ms. Mallosi, are leaving because they feel doors are closing in Greece. For many looking for their first job after college, those doors never opened.

The latest official figures show that unemployment among 15- to 24-year-olds was 29.8 percent in June, compared with about 20 percent across the European Union. The Greek figure was an improvement from 32.5 percent in May as summer jobs kicked in but still well above the 22.9 percent in the month a year earlier.

For Greeks age 25 to 34, the figure was 16.2 percent in June, up from 11.8 percent in 2009. Overall unemployment was 11.6 percent, up from 8.6 percent.

Yannis Gio, 22, moved to London in July after interviews with two architectural firms in Greece fell through. “I couldn’t find a job because I didn’t have any inside connections,” he said.

Mr. Gio is awaiting responses from three firms he interviewed with in London and has lined up more interviews for positions there as well as in Paris and Beijing.

Jason Kezios, who is 24 and went to school with Mr. Gio, went to London in April and has been working for an advertising firm for the last four months. “I earn twice as much as I would in Greece and the prospects are much better,” Mr. Kezios said.

Graduates with work experience like Alexis Cohen, 35, are leaving, too. His 10-year career as a sound engineer has foundered in recent months because the singers and musicians who are his clients are staging fewer concerts.

He has set up job interviews in California and intends to move there with his girlfriend next month. “If you want to have a decent life, you can’t do it here,” he said. “It’s always been difficult. Now it’s nearly impossible.”

In the 1950s and 1960s, thousands of people left Greece to seek a better life in the United States, Australia or elsewhere in Europe.

During the booming 1980s and 1990s, after Greece joined the European Union, many returned to a thriving economy. The pride generated by the Athens Olympic Games in 2004 spurred thousands more Greeks to come home.

But, as in Ireland, the party did not last. In 2008, the first signs of a recession appeared.

Earlier this year, the debt crisis required Greece to seek 110 billion euros in loan guarantees from the International Monetary Fund and the European Union, which demanded an array of budget cuts in return.

Now it seems the country is on the verge of a new wave of emigration, with young college graduates at the forefront.

“Today the people leaving Greece are not going to wash dishes in Astoria,” said George Pagoulatos, an associate professor at the Athens University of Economics and Business. “They are graduate students in New York choosing to stay and work there.”

There could be a “brain drain” if talented young people see few prospects in Greece, he said. But he also expressed doubts about their prospects in other Western countries where unemployment is a problem as well.

Another reason for the wave of emigration, he said, is a growing public discontent after the corruption scandals in 2008 that rocked the previous conservative government.

“There was a general sense of crisis, of a blocked society, of a political system unable to function — and a growing number of people stopped believing in the future of the country,” Mr. Pagoulatos said.

Alexander Kentikelenis, 26, is one of the disenchanted. He has a degree in international relations from Athens University, and a master’s in international development from the University of Cambridge in England, and is scheduled to return to Cambridge at the end of the month to start work on a doctorate in sociology.

His original ambition to enter Greek politics has fizzled. “I realized that the system consistently favors the well connected over the talented,” Mr. Kentikelenis said recently.

The government has tried to persuade employers to hire young people by lowering the monthly minimum wage to 590 euros from 700 euros and by offering to subsidize the social security contributions of employers for new workers.

Yannis Stournaras, director of the Foundation for Economic and Industrial Research, applauded the changes but said they would fail unless the government stimulated growth by encouraging investment in large-scale development projects like renovating the country’s airports and building wind farms and solar-energy parks.

And some experts say the Greek labor market cannot accommodate all the country’s college graduates anyway. Ilias Kikilias, who heads the state-run employment agency, said there were too many college graduates adrift in a sluggish economy that was generating too few jobs.

Data from the agency, known as the O.A.E.D., shows that 600,000 college graduates entered the labor market over the last 15 years but only 250,000 jobs were created, most in the bloated state sector.

Even this pool of potential jobs is dwindling because the government has frozen hiring and businesses are scaling back or moving some operations out of the country. Another problem, according to a study by labor economists, is that most positions in the private sector are for medium-skilled workers, not college graduates.

“Two-thirds of university graduates are settling for jobs which used to go to those with high school certificates,” said Mr. Kikilias, a co-author of the study. And so unskilled workers face competition not only from college graduates but also from lower-paid immigrants.

More vocational courses would help, said Glenda Quintini, the author of a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development on unemployment among Greek youth.

But most economists agree that the flow of emigration among young Greeks will not diminish until the economy’s structural flaws are addressed and growth resumes. The question is how long that will take.

“The reforms will not start paying off until 2012,” said Mr. Pagoulatos, the university professor. “With all this uncertainty, how many young Greeks are going to wait two years?”

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