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Riot police spray tear gas at protesters at the Greek Ministry of Employment in Athens, where a meeting was taking place with the EU’s top financial official, Olli Rehn. (Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images)
Riot police spray tear gas at protesters at the Greek Ministry of Employment in Athens, where a meeting was taking place with the EU’s top financial official, Olli Rehn. (Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images)

Young Greeks welcome austerity moves Add to ...

As their government prepares to impose brutal cutbacks and restrictions ordered by wealthier countries in hope of avoiding a vast credit crisis, the young members of Greece's lost generation have a message to Europe: Bring it on.

"I actually think that having outsiders come in and make the government cut back would be the best thing for us," said Mariana Panouli, 30, a private-sector nurse making little more than minimum wage. She spoke as European officials began a two-day visit to Athens Monday to demand that Greece impose rigid austerity measures on pay and government services, likely preconditions for a rescue by Germany and other countries from its unsustainable debt burden. In an effort to reassure bond markets and foreign lenders, the Greek cabinet will meet tomorrow to order freezes, restrictions and tax increases.

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Many Greeks are infuriated by what they see as a foreign intervention in their economy, and are preparing mass protests. But Ms. Panouli is a member of Greece's self-proclaimed "700 Generation" - well-educated under-35s who are unable to find jobs paying more than the minimum wage of 700 euros a month. While many have participated in mass protests and general strikes against the government and the European Union in recent weeks, there is widespread frustration among this generation with years of government inaction and a sense that Greece's problems are self-created.

Olli Rehn, the EU's top financial official, plans to continue meeting with the debt-plagued Greek government today to get it to impose strict austerity measures, including raising the retirement age above 61, increasing the sales tax beyond 19 per cent and freezing the pay of public employees, who currently earn a two-month bonus on top of their salaries.

"This is a crucial moment for the future of your country," Mr. Rehn told Greeks Monday night. "No member of the eurozone area can live permanently beyond its means. … Either you keep your debt under control or your debt starts controlling you."

Such a message is seen as an insult by many older Greeks, especially government employees. But as twentysomethings gathered to drink coffee and play backgammon in Athens Monday night, many said they see Europe's crackdown as a portent of future improvements.

"It can only be good for Greece," said Christo Stefanidis, 26, who is a certified accountant but has been unable to make more than 350 euros a month in the country's untaxed grey-market economy, which accounts for more than a third of all business. "We won't be hurt by any tax increases or government cuts, and it's not like people will be starving or sleeping on the streets. It might make the government start behaving properly."

Ms. Panouli's friend and former nursing-school classmate, Efterpi Morala, also 30, is on the other side of the divide. She is one of the lucky members of her generation who have been able to find a public-sector job. The state hospital pays her several times more than her friend, plus benefits better than those in many of Europe's wealthiest countries. But she feels that something needs to change, and layoffs might help.

"Every day I go in to work and there are five of us on the nursing floor but only one person's worth of work is done - the contract gives us all sorts of reasons to employ people who collect money but do nothing," she said, voicing a common Greek complaint about a public service that has become an insiders club.

Her friend, on the other hand, is made to work as hard as three public-sector nurses, they both agree. They share a sense of anger, along with much of this generation, that Greece is seen as a backward country by European standards. Many of their classmates have gone to work in one of the 26 other EU countries, an exodus that may grow.

"We have a lot of educated people so our hospitals and government service could be as efficient and productive as anywhere in Europe, but they're not," Ms. Morala said. "I love Greece, and I'd like to see our government working in a way that we don't become collateral damage."

But a great many public-sector employees do not share her enthusiasm for austerity-mandated reforms.

"There's no way anything's going to change. Don't worry, they'll just say things about cutting back for show, and then our pay and working conditions will stay the same," said George Voliotis, a 27-year-old police officer.German officials say they will insist that Greece raise its retirement age above 61, not just to reduce the unfunded pension costs that are Athens's biggest source of debt, but to assuage German taxpayers who don't want to spend their tax dollars on a country that offers a better retirement deal than their own. (Germany, like many European countries, is raising its retirement age to 67 from 65.) Mr. Voliotis shares the view, common among Greeks of his parents' generation, that the debt crisis is an irrelevant obstacle that will be overcome by government guile.His friends say they are angry that Germany, France and Britain, which also face high levels of public debt and soaring deficits, are arguing for another year of stimulus spending to get their own economies moving, while imposing cutbacks on southern European countries in similar straits.

But Mr. Voliotis, like most of his friends in the police, shrugs off any suggestion of a coming period of austerity.

"It won't happen," he said. "And if they did try anything like that, we'd walk out and shut down the country for six months."

 

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