The data are devastating. For 10 consecutive years, deaths in Greece have outnumbered births. A total of 931,884 people were born from 2011 to 2020 while 1,198,502 died over the same period, resulting in a net decrease of 266,618 people.
During the past decade, Greece has been losing the equivalent in population of a city the size of Corinth every year. Even more alarming is the fact that over the past couple of years, the country’s negative growth rate has expanded. Deaths have surpassed births by an annual 40,000 people.
All that resembles an unprecedented hemorrhage. Of course, this is not a new problem. Greece had been registering more deaths than births for six consecutive years between 1998-2003, although the gap back then was smaller. The causes behind this problem have often been the subject of debate. It is extremely important that a remedy is found as soon as possible.
Those who claim that all problems will suddenly go away because Greece will somehow “take off” in the coming years cannot be taken seriously. To be sure, the economic turmoil of the previous years exacerbated the problem. However, given the fact that Greece lost about a third of its gross domestic product between 2008 and today, assuming that Greece achieves an average annual growth rate of 3 percent, it will need about 10 years to return to 2007 levels.
If everything goes well (the experience of 2009-10 and the coronavirus pandemic indicate that we should not be too optimistic), by 2031 we should get to the point where we were 25 years ago. Meanwhile, an entire generation will have been lost.
Hence economic growth is not enough. You also need very specific policies. The objective should be twofold: first, to increase the number of young people (regardless of national origin) that live in the country; second, those young people must not feel insecure about having children.
The state must first of all direct funds to young people, instead of channeling them exclusively to small subgroups of the young population. This means cash and it brings us back to the idea of a minimum guaranteed income. The government must introduce a stable amount of money (about 300-350 euros per capita per month) for people between 20 and 30 years of age, subject to no conditions. A sum of that sort translates into dignity, time and choices.
Second, the government must take meaningful steps to support quality youth employment. The European Union has taken steps in this direction in recent years; Greece hasn’t. So far, the ruling class has treated youth employment as cheap, temporary employment mostly in the food or the tourism sector (what used to be construction or peach picking sectors). They don’t really mind if these are badly paid jobs without insurance – unless, of course, we’re talking about the children of their friends and cronies who need to be recognized for their “qualifications.” Young people are so far the casualties of the Greek economy. The money from the EU’s recovery fund presents a golden opportunity to turn things around.
Third, Greece must attract migrants, families or young individuals, who will obviously not move here from countries like Switzerland or Norway but from poor, developing countries. Balkan migrants actually rejuvenated the Greek countryside and evened out the birth-death ratio between 1990 and 2000. The fact that many of these people later moved back to their home countries was a loss for Greece.
Different countries are employing different methods to attract migrants. Developed states sign bilateral agreements with countries of the developing world in a bid to attract workers that better correspond to their needs, such as in healthcare services and agricultural work.
At the same time, we need to open up our university institutions to foreign students. The target should be that they make up 10-20% of the total student population. My 15-year experience of teaching a postgraduate program where one-third of students come from abroad shows that international students can really help to broaden the horizons of their Greek peers. Also, many of them will end up staying here, making their own contribution.
We need to implement open-minded measures before it is too late. Or in a few decades the extent of the damage will be incalculable. And I see “ultra-patriots” lighting up candles in a memorial service of sorts and weeping before framed photos of Rafale fighter jets.
“The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: Now is the time of monsters,” the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci said. Gramsci was not referring to population trends, but his observation was also valid in this respect, I fear.
Nikos Marantzidis is a professor of political science at the University of Macedonia.