Young, gifted and Greek: the world’s biggest brain drain

The Guardian, ATHENS

Thu, Jan 22, 2015 - Page 6

Call them Generation G: young, talented, Greek — and part of the biggest brain drain in an advanced Western economy in modern times.

As the nation lurches toward critical elections this weekend, more than 200,000 Greeks who have left since the crisis bit five years ago will watch from overseas. Doctors in Germany, academics in Britain, shopkeepers in the US — the decimation of Greece’s population has perhaps been the most pernicious byproduct of the economic collapse which has beggared the nation since its brush with bankruptcy.

“Greece is where I should be,” said Maritina Roppa, 28, a trainee doctor who left Greece three years ago for Minden in northwest Germany. “It’s such a pity that people like me, in their 20s, have had to go.”

Of the 2 percent of the population who have left, more than half have gone to Germany and Britain. Migration outflows have risen 300 percent on pre-crisis levels, as youth unemployment soared to more than 50 percent. About 55 percent of the workforce affected by record rates of unemployment are under 35, according to Endeavour, the international non-profit group that supports entrepreneurship.

“It is a huge loss of human capital, whose affects will only begin to be felt in the next decade,” said Aliki Mouri, a sociologist at the National Center for Social Research.

“Basically, people who have been educated at great cost, both to their families and the public purse, are now working in wealthier countries, which have not invested in them at all,” she added, acknowledging that even in good times Greece had difficulty absorbing the surplus of professionals its universities produced.

The north German town of Minden was not on Roppa’s radar when she elected to study medicine at Athens University in the late 1990s. Instead, she made the move when it became clear the alternative was years on a waiting list for a position as a specialist dermatologist.

The omens did not bode well when the health service was among the sectors worst affected by budget cuts demanded in return for the EU-IMF sponsored bailouts that have kept the Greek economy afloat.

“In Greece, hospitals were being shut and jobs axed,” Roppa said. “In Germany, where there is a huge demand for doctors, you have the opportunity to thrive personally and professionally in a system that is very good, very structured, very modern.”

About 35,000 Greek doctors — the biggest foreign group of its kind — have emigrated to Germany, according to statistics cited in German media reports. In sharp contrast to the gastarbeiter, or guest workers, who flocked to fill the nation’s factories back in the 1950s, the emigres are highly qualified.

The irony that Berlin, the biggest provider of the aid given to Athens, should also be the capital that has demanded excoriating austerity from Greeks is not lost on the economic migrants.

“At first it was hard,” said Roppa, describing her 3,000 euro (US$3,468) monthly wage as the stuff of dreams in Greece. “There was a lot in the papers about ‘lazy Greeks,’ a lot of prejudice, but the funny thing is there about 2,000 Greek doctors alone, just in this region of Germany.”

With one-third of the population at risk of poverty, many of her colleagues used their paychecks to help their families back home.

Despite showing the first signs of economic recovery — in November last year figures showed that Greece returned to growth for the first time in six years, its worst recession in post-war history — the exodus is not abating. Increasing numbers want to join the already record 50,000 Greeks estimated by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to be studying abroad.

Schools are being inundated with requests by students to be enrolled on courses for international exams that could prepare them for foreign fields.

“Greece doesn’t allow you to progress,” said Carmella Kontou, an aesthetician who is considering moving to the US. “You can’t even begin to think of having a family or achieving things that elsewhere in Europe would be considered totally natural.”

Like many of the younger generation, the 34-year-old declared that she would be casting a blank ballot on Sunday because she was so disgusted with politicians who had brought Greece to this place.

Lois Lambrinidis, a professor of economic geography at the University of Macedonia, said ever more Greeks were moving further afield.

“People feel trapped. The climate, economically and politically, is so bad that even if conditions are only mildly better abroad they are opting to go,” Lambrinidis said.

Research based on 2,000 telephone interviews conducted last summer showed the exodus was becoming ever more dispersed, possibly because Europe was also tightening up visa processes.

“Greeks are going anywhere they can find work and that might be Asia, Africa, Australia or the Middle East, and we are seeing a new phenomenon of non-degree holders who are also joining the flow,” he said.

Not all is lost, though.

Many of the newly mobile Greeks want to return home once the nation recovers. Experts say with their newly acquired skills and mind-sets, the emigres could become the “change agents” Greece so badly needs.

“A lot of us would like to go back,” Roppa said. “We will have a lot to offer in the way of different ethics and mentalities. No country could suffer a fate as bad as Greece. It has been totally humiliated by corrupt politicians and a system that was tolerated for far too long.”