ATHENS – Greece may be on the verge of beginning an economic recovery from a crushing economic crisis, but it’s of little consolation to the country’s unemployed with a record jobless rate – especially older workers who may never get a job again.
Greece’s economy has lost 25 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) over the last four years, since asking international lenders for bailouts with its economy on the edge of ruin, largely because of generations of wild overspending and runaway patronage by the ruling New Democracy Conservatives and their partner, the PASOK Socialists.
In an analysis of how dire the straits are for older workers, the Wall Street Journal told the story of some who are desperate to get back on their feet, including Thanassis Tziombras, a 50-year-old worker at the shipbuilding zone in Piraeus and Constantinos Tsimas, a 54-year-old U.S.-educated marketing consultant.
Unlike in other parts of Europe, Greek reforms have largely removed provisions that protected older workers and everyone’s in the same sinking boat.
Prime Minister Antonis Samaras from New Democracy, who’s been touting what he calls a “success story” for Greece has repeatedly said he would do something about the jobless rate but hasn’t, reneging on his own proposal to put 75,000 young to work in January, and saying nothing about the older unemployed.
While Greece’s youth unemployment is still a record for the EU—almost 60% of people aged 15-to-24 were out of work in 2013—the unemployment rate among older Greek males is about twice the Eurozone average and almost four times that of Germany.
Some 18% of 40-to-59-year-old Greek men were out of work last year, according to Eurostat, the European Union statistics agency.
One in five jobs lost in Greece between 2008 and 2013 was from the middle-aged male group. The Spanish equivalent was one in eight. In Italy, middle-aged men actually added jobs in the recession years.
Greece’s older men are more often families’ sole breadwinners. Female employment rates here, at 43.3% in 2013, are the lowest in the EU, where the average is 62.5%, according to Eurostat.
Recent pension reforms mean older Greek men who have lost their jobs could be looking at several years of no income. Greece has increased the retirement age to 67 for both men and women, changing a decades-old system that allowed some categories of workers as young as 55 to retire on a full pension.
“If they don’t have a job and they have to wait so long for a pension, what are they doing in the meantime? They are at serious risk of poverty,” Anne Sonnet, a senior economist at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based think tank told The Journal.
“We were used to providing for our families through honest work. We were proud of our work—now we’re just ashamed,” said Tziombras, counting his worry beads between his fingers.
He says his union, apart from political guidance, provides “solidarity and psychological support” to workers.
The shipbuilding zone at Perama in Pireaus, once buzzing, is now a wasteland of idle cranes and scattered ship parts. Men sit in cafes waiting for word that a vessel has docked for maintenance and is in need of day workers.
The port is barren of work, partly because the union has refused to allow a cut in the daily wages the workers would get, about 70 euros or $95. From 6,500 workers there in 2008, there are only about 1000 now.
Tziombras says his wife managed to find a job as a cleaner at a local school, bringing a few euros into the household budget, but their relationship has been strained by the financial woes.
Late last year he drove across the country to get a few days’ work at a factory. He has been doing odd jobs at construction sites around Piraeus and Athens, and continues to show up each morning at the port ready for work. The last time he got a job was for three days in January.
“We have gone through our savings, we’ve sold everything we owned, we stopped any nonessential activity,” Tziombras said.
In Tsimas’ wealthier neighborhood of Psychico, shame at being out of work is the first thing mentioned. “It’s socially shameful but, more than anything, I was ashamed because I had to ask my wife for money,” he said.
His wife brings home a good salary from her investment-banking job, but the loss of income from his work still hit the family budget, which supports one child at a British university and one in a private school.
“I actually think unemployed working-class guys my age may be better off in a way, because their expectations were always lower,” said Tsimas. “Being at this state at 54 is certainly not what I expected for myself.”