Today, Greece will not pay the €300 million it owes the International Monetary Fund. The country is taking its first step in “Grexit,” Greece leaving the Eurozone, which may happen as soon as tomorrow.
It’s been an economic drama of international summits, motorcycle-riding finance ministers, and towers of babel terms (troika, ECB, IMF, primary surplus, VAT reform).
Living through all of this are the people of Greece.
The voices here are like everyone you went to college with, all formerly successful professionals. Every single one of them of working age has lost his job (except for one living in Switzerland). They are in their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s. Some are in their 70s and 80s. Tomorrow, their country may transform in a way affecting generations to come.
Their names have been altered, but ages and occupations given. As one told me, there are a lot of “formerly proud people with bowed heads.”
On this brink of Grexit, here’s what they have to say.
Effect of the Crisis
Helen, 40, former PR professional
“The salaries and the pensions are below the minimum cost of life, and for the first time in Greece, we see so many homeless, so many incidents of starving children and people who commit suicide. These realities were far away until recently.”
Stavros, 55, former pharmaceutical executive
“The life in Greece is almost horrific for a large part of the population. The unemployment rate climbed from 7% to almost 30% within 3 years. It is an enormous 70% for people aged between 18 and 25.”
Fivos, 38, Consultant, living in Switzerland
“Everything looks more ‘grey.’ Closed shops, dirty streets and quite a few homeless people. Not only downtown, but in other neighborhoods too.”
Cause of the Crisis
Alex, 50s, a former executive, gave an explanation better than the Financial Times:
“In order to understand what caused the crisis, you should try to think of a monstrous public sector based on corruption and cronyism, supported by a dark and labyrinthine bureaucracy and a similar judicial system. This situation was established after the end of a junta regime back in 1974, and especially since 1980 when PASOK (the revolutionary party of socialists) was elected and ruled Greece for over 15 years.
Every citizen of this country sought in every way to be hired by the state. Even the private companies were trying to get business and contracts from the state without any sort of control and transparency. At the same time, we experienced the collapse of agricultural production and almost any production process in general. [After entry into the Euro] we used almost all the money given by EU for infrastructure purposes of any kind. In addition to this, we continued to borrow huge amounts of money from the free market in order to feed the public monster and to provide people with money in order to consume endlessly.”
What the Crisis Has Meant to You Personally
George, 70, retired software professional
“I planned all my life for an income based on a pension, which I worked my ass off for and paid into for 35 years. Now, I have to adjust to living with almost half of it.”
Fotini, 60, advertising professional
“I lost my job.”
Maria, 48, former PR & communications professional
“I never, in the past, was in the position to doubt or worry about my ability to find a new job. I was very surprised that there are no jobs available.”
Jason, 54, former business owner
I closed my company. The company was founded in 1970 by my father.
Many noted a rise of fascism and nationalism, not only in Greece but Europe-wide.
“The fascists will increase their numbers.”
“It has exposed the fascism of the Greek people.”
Some Good from the Crisis
Most people answered “nothing.” But there were a few bright lights.
Toula, 80, retired business owner
“The crisis brought out the best in most people: Fundraisers, and any help they can give to the poor. Of course, the rich are complaining because they lost some of their fortune in new taxes.”
“Any crisis forces us to undress from our luxury accessories and be seen naked.”
Nick, 50s, former auto executive
“There are maybe some new opportunities for businesses because rents for buildings and offices have fallen dramatically as well as salaries.”
Toula, 80, used a Greek saying:
We have to have hope and “look for the wheel to turn.”