Even when I was young, I never understood the privileging of youth. Turning eighteen in 1968, one of the more asinine slogans I had to contend with was the one about not trusting anyone over 30. The French are so much better at this sort of thing. “Sous les pavés, la plage!” says it all without rancor, let alone bigotry regarding color, gender, age, or place of national origin.
In the event, my closest friend was more than 20 years older, and I certainly trusted him more than I did SDS. Yet, all of us at the time were in awe of the heroic generation of the Thirties, which had come of (its) age in Spain. What did it mean, then, not to trust anybody over 30? If you were fighting fascism during the Siege of Madrid, you had to be roughly 50 (or over) during the siege of Low Library (talk about history as farce). What, exactly, was the point?
Perverted Romanticism, of course: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/But to be young was very Heaven!” and all that. Of course, that assumes the ability to distinguish a real dawn from a false one. “Youth rebellion” might mean many things, but it rarely signifies anything even remotely revolutionary, or even societally atypical. (Wordsworth’s own youthful revolutionary enthusiasms would give way, in later life, to a defense of “softened feudalism.”)
Greek youth has been more or less protesting continually since the Polytechnic uprising against the junta in 1973, with each passing year piling on the disrespect to the memory of that genuine revolt. It’s been 35 years, and the “γενιά του Πολυτεχνείου” is now not only in power in Greece, but deeply entrenched in every cranny of public life and every part of society. Yet, the “rebellion” continues. I am reminded of another slogan from May ’68: Travailleur: Tu as 25 ans mais ton syndicat est de l’autre siècle (Worker: You are 25 years old, but your union is from the last century).
Greece’s protestors might be 25 (or 15), but their goals are self-consciously those of the last quarter of the twentieth century. Fighting a losing battle against Thatcherism (decades before we all got the chance to live through the earth-shattering wonders of truly free markets), the European left reinvented itself as the enabler of a new agenda of corporate entrenchment of what was once called labor aristocracy (now mainly composed of public-sector unions) fighting to freeze its benefits at indecent—and socially disruptive and divisive—levels of self-interest and -aggrandizement. By the late Seventies, European social democracy had permanently turned its back on its entire history of social solidarity (and political purpose and social cohesion) to pursue its new function as a management theory of group entitlement. Γενιά του Πολυτεχνείου, meet the γενιά των 700 ευρώ.
Greek college graduates complain that many (some? a lot? are there any actual data?) make only the minimum wage of €700 a month. At yesterday’s exchange rate ($1.32374 to €1), €700 equal approximately $926.60. The current federal minimum wage in the United States is $6.55/hour. If we multiply that by 35 hours (a full week’s work) and again by four weeks (for the month), the final sum is $917 for a young American on minimum wage. Not much difference—except that an American must provide for his/her own health insurance, which, of course, a Greek does not because of universal state provision. (The American might have insurance provided by his employer, but minimum-wage jobs in the US are not famous for their health benefits.) Putting aside the issue of the actual cash benefit of that provision to a working person (personally, I’d say at least $5,000 per annum, very conservatively speaking), the fact is that it’s nice to know (to say the least) that, though you’re working for minimum wage, you don’t have to worry about your health.
In Greece’s social culture, moreover, there’s not a young man or woman who is not subsidized by parents to often extreme (and, for any non-Greek, unseemly) degrees. (The laundry bag dropped off at Mom’s house is not so much urban legend as fading custom.) Greece also has one of the highest home-ownership rates, not only in the EU, but in the developed world as a whole, at over 83% (Eurostat, 2003), as opposed to, for example, about 68% (US Census Bureau) in the US before the subprime mortgage crisis. That explains why so many young people live at (their parents’) home. Actually, it’s unusual not to before one is married. More to the point, it’s considered “normal” for (indeed morally incumbent upon) parents to buy housing for their offspring once they’re married (a case of the extreme subsidization I mentioned above).
Most important of all, Greek youth has an opportunity now that no previous generation ever had: the right to live and work anywhere in the European Union. But it refuses to take advantage of it. Indeed, according to the European Commission in 2001 (Employment in Europe), Greece had the lowest rate of internal labor mobility of any nation in the EU 15 (only 15.7% of workers were at jobs less than two years). As for external mobility, a study by the European Central Bank in 2006 (Cross-Border Labour Mobility Within An Enlarged EU) indicated that, for the first ten years following Greek accession, only 10,000 people moved to other EU nations in search of work each year. That’s in a labor force of roughly 4.2 million! In other words, less than a quarter of one percent of the employable population chose to take a chance on Paris or Barcelona or London or Milan or Berlin or anywhere but near their respective παρέα. Home is just too sweet.
And comfortable. Because the fact is that a young couple can live in Greece on €700 each. Fourteen hundred euros covers basic expenses. Again, if we add to that visible income the invisible but very material family solidarity that is a given in Greece (and can’t be ignored), I think Greek youth are in no worse, and perhaps considerably better, shape than their peers in most other Western societies. And, despite their own incredible claims to the opposite, they are profoundly more privileged and economically secure than their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents ever were. But they want people to believe the contrary, which is why they’ve indulged in their own ideological reinvention. That’s all that theatrically self-pitying self-description, γενιά των 700 ευρώ, means in the end.
(To be continued)