“The most beautiful country in the world,” he said Friday of his native land, before calling it “a sinking ship.”
As Greece races to complete a new bailout agreement with Europe, economists say its future is imperiled no matter what because of a terrible economy that has been in many ways most punishing for young Greeks and forced thousands of the nation’s youth abroad for work and school.
The exodus of young Greeks — driven by fruitless job searches in Athens, depleting bank accounts and the mass-mailing of applications abroad — marks a massive brain drain that could deprive the country of leading minds for a generation. Regardless of whether the crisis forces Greece from the continent’s single-currency zone, the loss of that talent will cast a shadow over the country.
“We are going to be in a situation where it’s a country of older people,” said Lois Labrianidis, a secretary general in the Greek economic and infrastructure ministry who has studied the brain drain, said in a phone interview from Athens. “It’s going to be a huge blow for society as well as the economy.”
With a youth unemployment rate near 50 percent, it might not seem surprising that many of Greece’s young people are leaving. But it is a testament to the severity of Greece’s crisis, given that brain drains are rare in developed nations with well-regarded education systems.
Over the last five years, more than 200,000 Greeks have left, shaving about two percent from the country’s population. The majority of those economic refugees are young and well-educated, according to several research papers. Immigration out of the country is up 300 percent from pre-crisis levels.
Bouras has had the strange experience of watching his country shrivel from afar. He saw on his social media feed that suicides back home were up 45 percent. When he spoke recently with his parents, both public school teachers, his mom said students had passed out during class with hunger. Bouras easily pays rent for his one-bedroom in Midtown, but his uncle in Greece days ago broke into tears, fearful he’d lose his life savings that was stuck in a bank.
As a result, Bouras mostly keeps his happy moments in America to himself. He doesn’t share photos of drinking or easy weekends on Facebook. When he met up with 15 Greek friends — mostly recent immigrants — at a rented house in Upstate New York over the Fourth of July weekend, they lounged and ate Bouras’s Greek burgers while Athens was in turmoil over a bailout referendum. Few spoke a word about the weekend to their families.
“Or, look at us right now, drinking a beer at 7:30 p.m.,” Bouras said this week during an interview at a bar near his office. “It’s a little unfair, right?”
Closing off jobs to the young
To produce the young generation that’s now moving abroad, Greece needed a lot of things to go right and a few things to go horribly wrong. Greek Millennials were the product of a free national college education system and decades of development that helped their parents and grandparents build up savings. But even before entering the workforce, they were also burned by the catastrophic decisions of older Greeks, who enforced a system of over-borrowing and negligent tax collection.
When that blew up, so did the economy.
Europe-enforced austerity took hold. Consumption plummeted. Taxes were raised. But more important, the collapse blocked new and recent job entrants, as cost-cutting companies first tried to save those with seniority. One million jobs were shed nationally, more than half held by those 35 and younger, and entire sectors — legal; medical; banking — closed off to newcomers. In a 2011-12 sample of 400 science students from universities across the country, nearly 70 percent said they had decided to or were thinking of leaving Greece.
“Young people are leaving because they’ve been more or less thrown out of the country,” Labrianidis, the economy ministry official, said.
According to research from Endeavor, an international non-profit that supports entrepreneurs, lifelines have been established connecting Greeks to different countries, depending on their field. Those in finance go to the UK. Those in medicine head to Germany. Engineers wind up in the Middle East. Those who want tech jobs go to the U.S. Many first seek advanced degrees in those countries to ease the visa process.
“We didn’t come here to open diners,” said Ioni Gliati, 29, who left Greece to study at New York University. “We’re not that generation.”
Nikolas Kontogiannis, a doctoral candidate at the University of Leicester who left Greece in 2012, said those who’ve stayed behind in Greece often wind up unemployed, underpaid, or working in cafes and restaurants while relying on their parents for financial support. Data collected over the last few years indicates that, largely, those who leave Greece earn far more than those who stay.
“It is very common to see skilled people with salaries of 400 or 500 euros per month being supported by their parents who may well be pensioners,” Kontogiannis wrote in an e-mail. “So, in effect, you have the parents' pensions subsidizing their kids’ employers. It’s mad.”
"You cannot close your eyes"
For Bouras, leaving wasn’t easy. He arrived in New York City in mid-2011 knowing nothing more than “the address of the Greek embassy,” he said. Even after graduation from Columbia — he got a degree in engineering — there was a chance he’d have to return to Greece if he couldn’t find a job and renew his visa.
But Bouras found work at a start-up, CipherHealth, that uses technology to help hospitals improve communication with their patients. He’s now worked there for 3-1/2 years as the company has expanded. He has a good salary -- and makes far more than he would have earned in Greece. He repaid his loans. He and several Greek friends in New York have recently talked about starting a grassroots group in which they'll set aside part of their paychecks for education and food aid back home.
Bouras sometimes thinks about going back to Athens for good. His work can be done remotely, and he could eventually wrangle permission to keep his job while returning home.
But for now, he only returns to Greece once a year — during the summer for vacation. He visits his parents, who have seen their salaries reduced. He visits his best friend, who runs an indebted flour factory and never takes a weekend off. He tours Athens, the city that has changed the most, a place that now almost hurts to see.
“The food is great, everything is great,” Bouras says. “But you cannot close your eyes. You go to Athens and you see not only people who have economic issues but everybody — everybody — is so pessimistic. Nobody is smiling. I feel something in my stomach every time I go there. I used to remember Athens as a city full of life.”