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Greece’s Brain Drain Has Not Gone Away

Asked whether they would move abroad if they found employment with better pay and better working conditions, 38% of Greeks replied definitely yes and 20% answered probably yes. The questions were part of a wide-ranging survey of current Greek attitudes which was run by the reputable Athens-based Dianeosis research organization. It was conducted in January and February of this year. Those attitudes were fairly evenly distributed among men and women, and not surprisingly the younger the demographic the greater was the eagerness to move abroad. Among those aged between 17 and 24 years old, over 44% would consider emigrating. What is surprising is that among those over 65 years-old almost 40% had the same attitude.

It is reported that during the decade-long crisis Greece experienced and which ended in 2018, 400,000 persons, most of them relatively young and highly skilled left the country and settled primarily in western Europe. As the economy started to gradually recover, we heard less and less of the brain drain as a thing of the present. But those attitudes reported in the Dianeosis survey force us to pause and acknowledge that he brain drain, or at least its prospect, still has a powerful momentum.

The brain drain was supposed to be on its way out and even be reversed. Greece was to start dealing with a ‘brain gain’ as the migrants returned, at least so it was hoped. There were several plans to achieve that goal that would help the country’s much needed development. One such initiative was generated from within the Greek-American community in late 2020, when The Hellenic Initiative (THI) established the Charles Condes Venture Impact Award (VIA) with the support of the Massachusetts-based Helidoni Foundation and a $500,000 donation from the estate of Greek American Charles C. Condes. Condes was born in Chicago, the son of immigrants from Peloponnesus and who was a bridge design engineer in Chicago. The award aimed to provide immediate economic stimulus to enterprises that are simultaneously creating jobs and helping people on the ground in Greece.

A more recent effort to reverse the brain drain came when prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis met with diaspora Greeks in London in November 2021 and highlighted the options that Greeks living abroad now have to vote in Greek elections, as well as his government’s emphasis on reforms. But most diaspora Greeks need more evidence of deeper changes.

We can see this in the case of the United Kingdom (UK), which was an appropriate venue for the prime minster to issue appeals for the return of diaspora Greeks to the homeland. Over the ten years of the economic crisis, the number of Greeks in the UK doubled, reaching 80,000. Most new arrivals were highly skilled, the numbers of men and women were about the same and eight out of ten were under 45 years old. Along with Germany and to a lesser extent the Netherlands, the UK was among the most popular destinations of Greeks emigrating during the economic crisis.

This prompted Dianeosis to conduct a survey in 2018-2019 focusing on the numbers and attitudes of the Greeks in the United Kingdom. The investigation found that only 10% of the Greeks in the UK it surveyed planned to return to Greece relatively soon. Another 25% said it would like to, but did not believe they could achieve their goals back in Greece. The one optimistic finding is that a majority (66%) did wish to return to the homeland in the longer term. But only if certain conditions were met. In particular, those would entail an improvement in the conditions in Greece in terms of employment matching their skills. A secondary but important consideration would be the ability to find a job that would satisfy them economically.

Neither of those conditions appear to be in place despite the pro-business efforts of the prime minister and some, not all of his government ministers. A number of high-tech positions have opened, but not enough to change the overall picture, much less to generate a brain gain trend. The pandemic and now the problems produced by the war in the Ukraine have certainly been reasons why things have moved slowly, even by the standards of Greece, where proposed reforms are instinctively treated with suspicion and have a hard time navigating through thickets of bureaucratic obstacles.

Most of the recent emigrants to the UK and other places in Western Europe will simply have to bide their time, though their absence deprives the country of valuable human capital. But the recent survey of attitudes of Greeks and the willingness with which so many would consider emigrating should inject a sense of urgency among all stakeholders who can work to improve domestic conditions. If it cannot be reversed, at least the brain drain should be stopped.

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