Generation WTF (and Greece)

What IS the Future?



Banksy Greece

What’s the future? It is a question many are asking, irrespective of country or context. Even an abridged catalogue of what ails our world – European finance, nationalist conflicts, income inequality, environmental degradation, countless phobias and human horrors – suggest a violent threat to global peace and prosperity among nations. None are more important than any other but all converge to explain the complexities Greece’s new government faces, where political, cultural and economic arches have all intersected, marshaling Greeks to consider what indeed does their future hold.

This is especially true for Greek Millennials. Generation WTF on steroids.

By 2025, Millennials will account for half the world’s population. Greek Millennials are a generation weaned in a climate of such intense catastrophe as to explain why they seem to find it easier to imagine the end of the world than dare to imagine the beginning of a new era. This generation of Rubik’s Cube behaviors, like Millennials across the world, ambient and ambivalent, cherished and loathed, are awakening to a country forcing them to do precisely what many suggest they cannot: Get busy.

They must. And they will. But first, policy makers must raise their needs to a national priority treating them as more than an economic value proposition (although that would be a good place to start) but more akin to a fundamental human right that in turn, inspire lives of meaning and consequence and above all purposefulness.

A nation’s future, it is said, is determined by how well its youngest citizens are educated.  For Greece this begs the question, what has the crisis taught them? About life? Authority? Institutions? Themselves? Social scientists suggest that when 15-29 year olds account for nearly 30% of the population of a country, violence occurs. The causes themselves are immaterial. Rich or poor, experiencing good or bad conditions, violence and passion transform into a sort of “cultural branding” that lingers long into adulthood. Kids who experience risk and failure often mature in remarkably healthy ways. While Greece’s Millennials have been afforded just such an acute laboratory of disappointed hopes, the data contradict the notion that this has forged them into a generation where adversity has become their ally.

According to PEW Research, 24% of Greece’s 11 million population are under the age of 24; consistent with the 28-member European Union levels overall. A rapidly aging Europe with a dwindling youth population, Millennials are the largest in Germany at 14.7 million and the smallest in Greece at 2 million.  For comparison, this generation represents 27% of the U.S. population, overtaking baby boomers as the largest living generation in the U.S.

Like American Millennials, European counterparts have come into their formative years under the great weight of economic crisis. But unlike Americans, European youth still face bleak economic and cultural prospects. This economic stagnation has exacted a heavy toll on young Greeks, where a mere 6% are satisfied with the direction the country is taking. Furthermore, only 45% of young Greeks are happy. Most grim is their outlook on agency, where 63% of Greek Millennials don’t feel that they can impact the world around them or their future, where “success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control.”

At first this may appear to be a generational issue. It is not. It is cultural. Both young and older Europeans see themselves as victims of fate, while young and old Americans alike see themselves as masters of their fate. Only one-in-four Greek Millennials rate a good education as “very important to getting ahead in life.” By comparison, fully 58% of Americans that age see education as strongly necessary for a successful future.

Similarly, only about one-in-six young Greeks judge working hard as very important to getting ahead. And despite Germans’ reputation as being the hardest working in Europe, only 44% of German Millennials say hard work is the ticket to getting ahead in life. This compares with 73% of their American counterparts who equate such effort with success.

To be sure, young people need to experience appropriate levels of risk and failure to mature in healthy ways. But the data suggests that Greek Millennials have not seen their trials and challenges transform them into a battle-hardened battalion that consider crisis as regenerative, a trial by fire that affords them the experiences to transform themselves and in turn, their nation. Instead, they believe that a caste-system of indebtedness and servitude to arcane institutional structures they had no hand in designing, prevent their ascent into the very fabric of a Greek national renewal from within.

Syriza has promised many things to many Greeks.  Critics argue the country has passed the point where meaningful transformation is plausible.  Only time will tell if this Greek ascent of realpolitik will regenerate a sense of hope and prosperity among its youngest citizens or if a system terrified by dismantling the status quo will continue damning young Greeks into a class-based caste system denying hope and optimism, the very foundations of ingenuity and invention and meaning.

Syriza must boldly, bravely and honestly apron its youngest citizens with policies that embolden them to believe. In themselves. Once that human capital is harnessed, watch out. Greece may make the 60s look like the 50s, when a revolution of ideas built one of history’s greatest generations.

That is a goal worth fighting for.

*Eve Geroulis is a Senior Lecturer at Loyola University Chicago Quinlan School of Business and on Twitter.