Thursday, 30 May 2013

Independent living

In my recent work-related reading yesterday, I came across some interesting figures. From the household population of a sample for an organic vs. conventional products survey conducted in 2011 and consisting of 200 interviewees from Athens, Thessaloniki and Heraklion, it was discovered that:
"... the majority [of households] has three people in the same house at 37.9%, followed by 26.3% for a house population of four, 17.4% for a population of two, 11.6% for a population of five, 3.7% for a population of six, and 3.2% for a population of one."
Despite the survey size, we can conclude that Greeks generally don't have large families - and more importantly, they generally don't live alone. This means that you won't see a lot of young single Greek people living and working on their own. This should not come as surprising given the economic crisis. Greece has a high unemployment rate, especially among young people in the 15-24 year old category, making living on one's own unaffordable. So it will come as a surprise to many people that there are in fact a proportionally high number of young people in this age group living alone in Greece. To live on your own means you must be financially independent, able to pay your rent, utilities, phone line, food and transport needs, which also includes your cellphone, internet usage, computer maintenance, meals out, and other things young people do. So how can it be that many young people in the 15-24 year category are living on their own in Greece but aren't working? People who are more likely to live on their own will probably be financially independent, so what is going on?

Children live with their parents until they finish school. If they wish to continue their studies beyond secondary school, they are required to apply for a place at one of the many departments of one of the many tertiary institutes in Greece, which they secure according to their marks in the national university entrance examinations (called the Πανελλαδικές - Panelladikes). Because you specify your interest before getting your grades in these exams (which are completely different from the regular school exams), you rarely attend an institute in your own town, unless you live in a very large urban centre (eg Athens, Thessaloniki, Iraklio) where it is more likely that you will find a faculty that interests you.

While students study for their basic qualification - 3 years at a technical institute (TEI), 4 years for a university degree (AEI) at least 5 years or more for Polytechnio, the Technical University, which is considered the highest level of tertiary education in Greece, and 5-6 years at med school - they live in accommodation paid for by their parents. State-subsidised accommodation is only open for certain socio-economic groups but there is a general lack of such facilities, hence their under-use by Greek students.

For this reason, parents pay for their children's accommodation, and all that goes along with it. So we have a lot of young people in Greece who had a lot of economic freedom in their youth. Student years are a good time to spend away from family, in order to gain some independence in your life and in the choices you make. Greek students cannot complain that they are not given this chance. Once they finish their studies, however, they lose their bachelor pad. How they live after their studies will not necessarily be determined by their studies and qualifications gained - a good deal of the work done in this sphere will have been done during the period that they were studying alone, living off their parents' money. If you are living off someone else's money, you aren't really independent, but this can also be said for people living off state benefits: living allowances are paid out to young people in places like the UK and NZ, so they can live 'independently'. In Greece, there is no such thing. Rent subsidies for example are given in special circumstances. You must have paid into the system before you can get anything out of it.

It was never affordable for Greeks to live on their own, financially speaking; average salaries have always been very low, since I came to Greece. While living on my own in Athens in my early days in Greece, I was making approximately twice the average salary - I had a better boss than most people - and I was also earning another salary on the side, through private English lessons. Believe it or not, I am not making much more than those early days in figure terms! Eighteen years ago, I was getting approximately 500,000 drachma in the hand, which is the equivalent of about 1500 euro in today's figures (and I worked approximately 50 hours a week to make this money). But if we look at the real value of money, this has changed: a bunch of parsley used to cost me less than 100 drachmas (29 cents), whereas it now costs at least 40 cents. It's not my salary that helps me to live independently in a money-oriented world - it's my living choices.

From the same survey where I obtained the information about household size, I also obtained the following income data (again, valid for 2011):
"... the percentage of the sample who declared monthly income. 92.6% declared it, while only 7.4% preferred not to say. The majority has income between 1501–2000 Euro per month at 28.4%; 26.8% has income between 2001–3000 Euro per month, 16.3% has income between 1001–1500 Euro per month, while 12.1% has income of 3001 Euro or more per month, and only 8.9% has monthly income between 500–1000 Euro." 
That was two years ago, and things will have changed in some way since then for sure. Even so, the income levels seem respectable. They don't sound as low as we have been led to believe, and most people fall within the middle income levels. One's standard of living does not always depend on one's salary.

Given the state of the Greek economy at the moment, it's very difficult for me to have faith in the security of the state-provided accommodation facilities for students: we don't have money for basic health care, let alone secure student accommodation. But I've heard that things are improving, and new student accommodation is being created by refurbishing disused buildings. So I have faith that when the time comes for my own children to be studying, things may have improved so that they can enter student life with just as much help from the state as from their parents. We still have a long way to go on that, but it is just one of the ways that shows that Greece is becoming ever more global in the broadest sense.

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