Europe News

After nearly a decade of economic crisis, Greece has stopped dreaming

The Parthenon in Athens, Greece.
Oli Scarff | Getty Images

Following nearly 10 years of economic recession, the future of the Greek economy has finally started to brighten up. The Greek people, however, have stopped dreaming about their own future.

Greece has seen economic growth consecutively in the last three quarters and is set to reach 1.6 percent of growth this year, according to forecasts from the European Commission — breaking free from years of recession.

Next year is expected to continue the positive momentum, with a growth rate of about 2.5 percent and the end of international assistance scheduled for the summer. However, in the streets of Athens, people aren't satisfied and doubt their situation will improve in the short-term.

'We don't dream anymore'

"We don't dream. We are fine, we continue our lives, we know that we don't live in extreme poverty. But if you want to learn a second language, if you want to do something for yourself, improving your skills, you can't or you are very limited," Eva Pavlopoulo, a 29-year-old student, told CNBC in the tourist-friendly neighborhood of Plaka in central Athens.

Pavlopoulo is currently studying for her second masters degree, hoping it will increase the chances of being employed in the sustainable environment sector. She recently got a job offer with a monthly salary of 1,000 euros ($1,178). Although she will accept, Pavlopoulo will have to continue living with her parents.

Unemployment, and youth unemployment in particular, remain one of the biggest struggles in Greece. In 2016, 47.3 percent of the Greek population aged below 25 was out of work. That's nearly half of the population and more than two times the average rate across the euro zone.

The one wish that teacher Stathis Nikitopoulos, 38, has for 2018 is for his friends and family, who work in the private sector, to worry less about potentially losing their jobs.

"I work in the public sector and I think I can feel safe about my job, because the previous government has already cut positions in the public sector," Nikitopoulos, who teaches physical education, told CNBC. "But in the private sector it is different. Most of my friends and family work in the private sector and their salaries don't go up and unemployment is about 20, 25 percent."

Street vendors sell bread from a stall in the main shopping area following the electoral success by Syriza in the Greek general election on January 26, 2015 in Athens, Greece.
Matt Cardy | Getty Images

The number of employees in the core public sector fell by 26 percent between 2009 and 2015.

Nikitopoulos, who has lost 40 percent of his income since 2010, told CNBC that although he is an optimist, he doesn't think the economic situation of the Greek people will get better.

"I believe that the situation will not improve in the next few years, because salaries don't go up and prices don't go down. Plus taxes are very high," he said.

George Fonourakis, a food and beverages manager at a hotel in Athens, told CNBC that he was forced to move back in with his parents during the height of the crisis. In 2012, the 40-year-old saw his salary drop from 3,000 euros to 800 euros overnight and he could no longer pay his mortgage.

Working in a different job since summer 2016, George is optimistic again. "I have hope now. I have a good job with 14 salaries (pay checks per year), my car and my own (rented) place," he said. "The pickup in tourism gives me more hope."

Tourism paints a more positive picture of the Greek economy. In the first nine months of 2017, revenue in the sector approached 13 billion euros, compared to 11.7 billion euros during the same period in 2016, data from Greece's central bank showed.

Tourism brings some hope

An Uber driver told CNBC that he made "a lot of money" over the summer when driving people on the island of Santorini.

"I just feel sorry for my parents and grandparents, who cannot work anymore. I am healthy and I can have more than one job if needed, but they have stopped working and were counting on a certain pension every month, but that has been cut too," the driver, who's originally from Crete and didn't want to give his name, said.

Pensioners demonstrate to protest against deep cuts to pensions and measures included in the government's draft 2018 budget, on November 23, 2017 in Athens.
Louisa Gouliamaki | AFP | Getty Images

The retirement age has increased and pensions have been cut more than 10 times since the crisis started in 2010. Pensioners took to the streets of Athens earlier this year in protest, and international creditors have said the government needs to make further reforms to the pension system. An added problem is that pensioners have become, in many cases, the only source of income in a household.

The brain drain

Adding to the economic problem is the exodus of thousands of people from Greece, searching for better living conditions abroad.

Maria Hatzi, 24 and currently studying for second masters degree, is contemplating the possibility of moving away after graduation.

"I'm considering it very seriously at this point, because you are constantly trying to improve your lifestyle by studying, and you are expecting to implement the things you learned," she said.

"I think that given the opportunity, I'll leave Greece. I'll come back at some time in the future, I just can't put an exact timeframe."

Most Greeks say that the economic reforms that the government has put through – though praised outside of the country – haven't brought any changes to their daily lives.

"Nothing much has changed since 2010. All the financial help from Europe and the IMF wasn't that substantial to the average person," Hatzi said.

At a crossroads

Danil Shamkin | NurPhoto | Getty Images

Greece is entering a crossroads. On the one hand, economic growth has returned and is set to continue, while the country is due to end its bailout program in August 2018. On the other hand, people do not feel their prospects will improve in the short-term and a general election could emerge relatively soon, potentially sparking further turmoil.

At the moment, the conservative New Democracy party is polling about 12 percentage points ahead of Syriza, which has led Greece since 2015. New Democracy is hoping for an election at some point in 2018, although Syriza's mandate to govern ends in late 2019.

The population seems divided as to who will lead the country after the next election, but most people appear fed up with the entire political system. Syriza, which broke a two-party-led system, has disappointed some on the left for implementing austerity measures and the reputation of the mainstream parties remains damaged following what is perceived as years of failed promises.

"I think (Prime Minister Alexis) Tsipras will lose (the election), because I think we Greeks become resentful to the people that promised things and didn't manage to deliver," Hatzi said. She added, however, that the rival New Democracy party has so far failed to break free from its bad reputation.

"I'm not satisfied but if I were to vote now I'd vote for Syriza again," Nikitopoulos said. "Tsipras is the best you can have now."