Jobless and not getting younger

Unemployment in Greece the last couple of years has an identity, an age and an origin: It is men or women aged 50 or more, with heavy family burdens, living in the cities of continental Greece, on the verge of having the health problems that come with age and with few options for professional retraining. When young people lose their jobs, they have, among other qualities, the spirit of youth to glean knowledge and the whole world before them. In contrast, an older person who loses their job and does not have higher qualifications or any expertise in todays products and services will more easily succumb to depression and withdrawal symptoms under the burden of responsibilities. The state, without the exception of the current government, continues to tackle the problem in the same inefficient way – with the expansion of unemployment benefits through special programs that are renewed via ministerial decisions and the well-known «Complete Interventions,» which are nothing more than another type of subsidy. It took a sacked worker of the Drapetsona Fertilizer Company chaining himself in front of the Employment Ministry for the government to renew benefits to him, as he’d been unemployed for a long period of time, along with his jobless colleagues. This will definitely not be the last act of desperation we will see. A similar renewal of benefits is desperately hoped for by the unemployed workers of the former Skalistiris group, while recently the Manpower Organization (OAED) and a committee for the Account for Employment and Professional Training (LAEK), a labor solidarity fund, decided to initiated new programs for the unemployed in Kastoria, Komotini and Naoussa. In fact, these programs are no more than quick fixes, offering no real treatment, such as creating new jobs, even in the form of subsidies to enterprises toward hiring unemployed workers aged over 50 for 18 months. They compound the problem instead of solving it. It is clear that subsidy incentives are given either to regions that have little investment activity and moribund domains, or toward the creation of small businesses (the self-employment programs for freelancers) which then risk closure after the subsidy runs out. All these years it has always been the same, without evaluation and without effect. Scandinavia’s case The domestic rise in unemployment in the older age group makes us take a look at countries that have tackled the problem in a more systematic fashion. In the Scandinavian countries, for instance, local governments hire exclusively older people for certain jobs, professions that may not require great expertise but are relevant to the experience that comes with age, such as surveillance, customer service, staffing call centers and other service-sector jobs. This is not benefits but work, which makes people feel useful and socially active. In Greece, several serious companies in the private sector could cover similar posts in a systematic way if subsidies, which today are generally scattered, were targeted toward funding the extra costs of social security. Such targeted support would logically counteract the companies’ propensity to hire young and cheap workers for positions that could be served by older workers, as the young unemployed still have many more opportunities to find jobs. Mutual concessions An innovative approach requires mutual concessions by everyone, including government and unions. It must be combined with changes in the hiring requirements for specific professional jobs which remain unattractive to younger workers. How can it be that even a union such as IG Metals goes ahead with a work-hour and salary compromise to preserve 700 jobs in Germany, while the Greek unions have not realized that they must take drastic action for the 93,000 unemployed aged over 45. Work force data by the National Statistics Service (NSS) for the 1998-2005 period shows that the jobless who have passed their 45th year have increased by 18,304, while the unemployment rate in the 45-64 age group in the second quarter of this year was 5 percent. NSS figures match those from OAED, with the former recording 92,835 over-45s unemployed in the year’s first quarter, while the latter had 91,263 jobless aged over 46 in its records in August, from a total of 446,243 people registered. Certainly, the establishment of single criteria for systematic relief from salary burdens for specific posts will put an obstacle in the way that politicians serve their political base, pressing for the creation of special programs in the country’s regions. It requires a different kind of management for LAEK and a different style of handling problems by the Labor Ministry. The issue of seeking a systematic model for keeping jobs for older workers also has another dimension regarding the social security funds: Today, for the long-term unemployed in their 50s and 60s OAED funds their social security contributions for five years until they retire through LAEK. This measure is a much-needed boost to people who lose their jobs and therefore fail to complete the years required for a pension. At the same time, though, it forces them to leave the labor market as soon as possible, putting great pressure on the social security system and funds. Since employment and pensions are related, it is no coincidence that Greece has an exceptionally low average age for initial state pension payments, at about 60 years.