Greece's "700-euro-generation" angry ahead of polls

Athens  - Anger is growing in Greece about economic policies of the ruling Conservative government which have caused a widening social gap and rising youth unemployment, but the opposition has yet to convince young voters that it has a better plan for creating jobs.

Unemployment among the young has always been high in Greece for the past few decades - but now the problem is worsening, leaving young Greeks reeling under economic hardship and the impact of a global recession.

Official unemployment figures show nearly 18 per cent of 15- to 29-year-old Greeks were unemployed in the second quarter, or double the national average of 8.9 per cent, leaving many disillusioned about the future.

Students have expressed anger about investing a lot in their education, but then having few prospects in return.

"I finished my studies in business management five years ago but I could not find anything in my field, so I have had to resort to being a sales clerk," said Evgenia Kokori.

The 28-year-old, who works in the Levi's section of Attica Department Store in central Athens, summed up the frustrations of many similarly-placed of her generation.

Commentators in Greece have dubbed the new generation of young people "the 700-euro-a-month" generation of workers, as many are forced to accept low-paid, part-time jobs with no contract and no social security.

Many Evgenia's age wonder what the future will bring and are pessimistic about their chances of ever having a pension.

"Forget Generation X or Y, this is Generation 700," said 31-year- old waiter Dionysis Koutsonikos.

"In cities such as Athens or Thessaloniki where rent starts at 300 euros and prices of basic goods are rising, young people have little choice but to live with their parents and ask them for money well into their 30's or until they get married," he said.

The issue, along with the widespread belief that the country lacks a system in which advancement is based in individual ability or achievement, fed the worst riots the country has seen in decades after the killing of a teenager by police in late December last year.

The riots and wave of arson after the shooting of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos were seen as the result of long-simmering discontent with the government over a series of financial scandals and unpopular economic and education reforms.

Nikos Maginas, a senior economist at the Economic Analysis Department at the National Bank of Greece, cites many factors: a university system that is not market-friendly, insufficient working- time flexibility, high minimum wages and an insufficient social welfare network.

A recent National Bank of Greece report noted that the "declining rates for the young have coincided with rapidly increasing enrollment in education. However, the quality of education remains relatively low by international standards and matches poorly with the economy's needs."

Polls show the ruling conservative New Democracy Party trailing the main opposition Socialists by about 6 percentage points but with 20 per cent of young voters still undecided, many of the smaller parties could garner a good proportion of the youth vote.

Others, like Koutsonikos, who recently opened a small cafe in central Athens, aim not to vote altogether, saying they see little hope, given the present situation.

"I have accepted the fact that whatever party gets into power will not do anything substantial to change the situations for young Greeks. None of the parties show a real interest in or is trying to approach the problems of the young," Koutsonikos said.

Many business in Greece such as those involved in the tourism industry, Emboriki Bank and Alumil, have announced job cuts and are cutting back on working hours and reducing pay, making it particularly hard for young Greeks to find a job.

Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis has warned that things will get even tougher before they get better, and announced a hiring freeze in the public sector if he is re-elected.

The Socialists say it will increase unemployment benefits and provide people up to 25 years old and university graduates with funding and incentives to set up their own small businesses. (dpa)