Greece’s ticking demographic time bomb

Greece's demographic characteristics portray similarities with both, Western European countries and those in the Balkans.

While Greece shares some demographic characteristics with richer Western European countries, it is also converging in terms of its worst problems with the Balkans.

Shrinking, ageing, emigrating: Greece’s demographic woes get worse by the year and its leaders are painfully aware of them. They are a “ticking time bomb,” said prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in June. “The danger is immediate and significant.”

In a speech at a conference on demography, Mitsotakis went on to explain that he was “not talking about a threat to our national identity”, but rather “a direct undermining of the country’s ability to generate wealth on a personal and collective level, so as to preserve in this way the strong fabric that unites the citizens.”

In other words, with every passing year, Greece has less and less people of working age actually working and paying taxes. How will Greeks continue to live as middle-income Europeans, albeit a people already considerably impoverished since the debt crisis that began in Greece in late 2009, if there are ever less of them to pay for this?

Census problems

Many of the issues that Greece faces, it shares with other European countries, especially its Balkan neighbours, Italy and Spain. But, general trends aside, Greece’s chronic demographic problems are quite distinct. While it shares some demographic characteristics with richer Western European countries, it is also converging in terms of its worst problems with the Balkans.

Let’s start with the census. In most western countries it is regarded as the gold standard as to the number people in a country. All Balkan countries, however, struggle to get reliable statistical data and so does Greece.

Greece’s ticking demographic time bomb

Infographic: Ewelina Karpowiak / Klawe Rzeczy

In June the Hellenic Statistical Authority, ELSTAT, announced that according to the winter 2021 census there were 10.4 million people in the country. This is 3.5 per cent less than the number recorded in the 2011 census. The problem is that even ELSTAT knows that figure is wrong.

In 2011 the census found that there were 10.8 million people in Greece. However, Eurostat, the EU’s statistical agency, which receives its Greek data from ELSTAT, records that in 2011 there were actually 11.1 million people in Greece. The reason for this is that a post-census survey found that that the count had underestimated the true number of residents by 2.83 per cent, especially because illegal immigrants in the country had not been counted.

The 2021 was census was beset by problems that have again led to an undercount, says Byron Kotzamanis, professor of demography at the University of Thessaly in Volos. Some older people struggled to answer the census, which was conducted online for the first time; a good proportion of illegal migrants will again not have been counted; and, finally, the hostility of many to the state in general, a group which overlaps with Covid anti-vaxxers, means that once again a large number won’t have been counted.

Infographic: Ewelina Karpowiak / Klawe Rzeczy

However, anticipating problems, this time ELSTAT asked enumerators to estimate numbers of people who had refused to participate in any given area by asking for information from their neighbours.

Given this, says Kotzamanis, he believes that the underestimate in 2021 compared to 2011 is less and that the true figure of people in Greece is 10.6 million, which would be a decline of 4.4 per cent on 11.1 million if correct. This is also the figure that Eurostat, using data sent to them by ELSTAT, recorded as the Greek population for January 1, 2022.

Deaths, births and emigration

The reason for the decline is both emigration and Greece’s low fertility rate. Kotzamanis believes that between 400,000 and 500,000 people have emigrated since the financial crisis, but adds that of that number some 150,000 would have been foreigners living in Greece.

Greece’s fertility rate is 1.39, which is below the EU average of 1.5 and well below the magic number of 2.1 – the number of children every woman would have to have to keep any given population at replacement level without immigration. In 1948 there were 210,000 babies born in Greece, and the trend has been relentlessly downwards ever since. In 2021 there were 86,390 births. There were also 58,975 more deaths than births, a number made greater by COVID-19 than it would have been otherwise, however there have been more deaths than births in Greece since 2011.

A Spot of Growth

The Greek population is shrinking, but some regions are shrinking faster than others. In the north of Greece, especially in mountainous areas, villages have been emptying for decades and towns which relied on industries that have shuttered are also emptying. But it is not bad news everywhere. The municipality of Ioannina, one of the most beautiful towns in northern Greece, has according to the 2021 census actually grown in the last decade, albeit only by 608 people to 113,094. Include illegal migrants and, for example, people who moved to Ioannina from the big cities to work remotely during the pandemic but remain registered elsewhere, and the figure is doubtless higher.

Mayor Moses Elisaf is not surprised. New roads make the once hard-to-get-to town far easier to access than ever before. Now it takes three hours to drive to Thessaloniki and three and half to Athens.

Apart from attracting tourists to its historic old town and lake, Ioannina has lots going for it. It has a university with 20,000 students and two big hospitals employing some 3,000. It is also the regional administrative capital of Epirus, which generates jobs. Two mineral water factories and several poultry farms provide Greece with 50 per cent of its bottled water and 60 per cent of its chicken.

IT firms employ computer science graduates from its university and Mayor Elisaf has long talked of his town becoming a Greek “Silicon Valley”, but he regrets that other talented graduates leave for Athens, Thessaloniki or abroad because there are no jobs for them. But it is a Catch 22: companies that might otherwise come to Ioannina don’t because they can’t find skilled staff to employ.

Employing and retaining medical staff is also hard. It is “impossible” to attract Greek doctors back from London, says Elisaf, and pay them €1,500 a month when they might be earning £10,000 (€11,800) over there.

The wider Ioannina region comprises eight municipalities, of which Ioannina is one. In the last decade the region as a whole has lost 4.7 per cent of its population, which is marginally above the figure for Greece as a whole, and the seven other municipalities of the region have all shrunk. Within Ioannina municipality itself, says Elisaf, it is the town that has managed to hold on to its population, while the outlying villages have all lost population.

As young people leave the villages and their population gets older, there are less and less children and so schools close. As numbers in village schools shrink, parents prefer to move to Ioannina or drive their children into town where there are more children and they think that they will get a better education. In the last 20 years about 20 schools, in fact “nearly all of the schools of the surrounding villages,” have closed, says Elisaf.

The Ioannina region is mountainous and not a major agricultural region like others in Greece. In the 1960s, says Elisaf, thousands emigrated to Germany, Belgium and elsewhere. From the more prosperous 1980s until the financial crisis beginning in 2009, some came back. However, what really saved Ioannina from a dramatic loss of population was the influx of Albanians in the 1990s. Today, Elisaf estimates that about 10 per cent of Ioannina’s population are Albanian, the biggest proportion of whom hail from its Greek minority.

Ioannina, like all of Greece, is ageing and COVID-19 presented a major challenge, as the municipality was tasked with helping care for the elderly. It also has to take care of some 3,000 migrants, many of whom do not have the right to work and don’t learn Greek because they are only waiting for an opportunity to flee to Northern Europe. Elisaf laments the fact that nothing is done to encourage these people to stay, given “the successful experiment with the Albanians” and Ioannina’s own multicultural past when it was home to Christians, Jews, Muslims, Albanians and Turks.

This is a trend that is unlikely to diminish. Every year there are less women of childbearing age and, by European standards, a relatively large number of women don’t have children. Of women born in 1975 for example, the number childless is almost 24 per cent, notes Kotzamanis.

As the number of babies fall, life expectancy gets longer. In 1960 a Greek could expect to live to the age of 68. By 2020 they could expect to live to 81, a number which has dipped a little from previous years because of COVID-19. Between 2011 and 2021, the median age in Greece increased by four years to 45.5. In the EU, only in Spain and Portugal did the median age increase faster.

As a result of these factors Greece’s population is ageing fast, labour shortages are appearing in several sectors, and the proportion of the working-age population has begun to shrink. Compared with 1951, the proportion of people in Greece aged 15-64 compared with 2020 was down by 1.4 per cent, but that number is going to balloon in the coming decades. In 1951 the proportion of people aged up to 19 years was 38.6 per cent, but in 2020 it was only 19.4 per cent. In 1951 the number of people aged 65 and over was 6.8 per cent, but by 2020 it was 22.3 per cent, a number which is projected to increase to 28 per cent by 2040. Then, says Kotzamanis, the proportion of people of working age will have shrunk from 58.5 per cent in 2020 to 54 per cent.

Low fertility rates and ageing populations are common to all European countries, but richer Western European countries have generally stabilised their population numbers with immigration. Here Greece is an outlier. Over the last few decades, it has swung from being a country of mass emigration to mass immigration and back to emigration again (see box below). Today, some 1.36 million people in Greece are foreign born. Immigration helped push Greece’s population to its peak in 2010 of 11.1 million and has now slowed its decline. Some 450,000 foreigners acquired Greek citizenship between 1991 and 2021, and just under 900,000 foreigners live there now.

Family matters

In most societies, urbanisation and education have been the driving factors leading to families having less children. Historically, that is the same for Greece, but today there are also distinctive factors which help keep the Greek fertility rate depressed.

In Greece, family has always played a very important role in supporting younger generations, but the economic crash since 2009 has severely crippled its ability to do so compared to the past. Pensions and large pension bonuses for those employed by the state or state-owned companies have been slashed. In the past, portions of this cash were often passed to children and grandchildren to help them buy their own homes, helping them to marry and have children. Now, after years of high unemployment and low wages for those who can find jobs, most young people “don’t have the means to start a family,” says Michalis Goudis who heads the Heinrich Boll Foundation think tank in Greece.

Infographic: Ewelina Karpowiak / Klawe Rzeczy

The Foundation supported a study, he explains, that found that more than 50 per cent in the Thessaloniki area said they were “overburdened” by housing costs, meaning they paid more than 40 per cent of their disposable income for housing costs.

This is the reason that 88.5 per cent of Greek men aged 16-29 still live with their parents, a figure only surpassed in the EU by Croatia. For the EU as a whole, that figure is 71.6 per cent and, by way of comparison, in Sweden it is 42.3 per cent.

Although less than before, marriage is still considered very important for starting a family, but in order to be married you must have a job and a home, says Kotzamanis. If you don’t have a job or it is poorly paid, “you continue to live with your parents” and so you can’t get married.

Even if you do get married, however, gender inequalities in Greece are, according to Eurostat data from 2016, the worst in the entire EU with only 53 per cent of men taking part in daily childcare and this too depresses the birth rate. The EU average is 69 per cent.

As a result of these factors, according to 2018 data, only 49 per cent of Greek women aged 20-64 were employed, the lowest proportion in the EU, although male participation in the labour force at 70 per cent was also the lowest in the Union, though on a par with Croatia. These low numbers, however, mean that theoretically Greece has much more opportunity to cushion the blow of a shrinking workforce and hence shrivelling tax base, than countries like Sweden where 80 per cent of women and 84 per cent of men of working age are working. To do this, however, will be difficult – not least if women now not working do not have the right skills, do not live where there are jobs, or if the jobs don’t pay enough to make it worthwhile for them work, if for example the price of childcare and transport cancels out their potential income.

Exodus

For everyone, skills are an issue with demographic consequences. Education has always been highly prized in Greece, which has led, not uniquely for sure, to a rural exodus as young people left home for university and subsequently sought skilled and office jobs. “If you have been to university, you don’t want to become a labourer,” comments Heinrich Böll Foundation’s Goudis.

The economic crisis since 2009 has only strengthened that trend as more young people went to university or extended their studies rather than be unemployed. Over the decades, though, this has led to massive rural depopulation, especially in northern Greece, and the concentration of 5.5 million, or more than half of the population, in and around the two biggest cities of Athens and Thessaloniki. Consequently, rural areas are often left with older people and worse services, which in turn encourages ever more people to leave.

For years, demographers have warned Greek governments of the demographic catastrophe facing the country, but little has been done. Recently schools have been told to extend their working hours and Mitsotakis has talked of various tax incentives to staunch the brain drain. But the fact remains, says Kotzamanis, that when students from his faculty graduate, they can expect to be paid 600-700 euros a month, and not necessarily in their chosen field, compared with 1,200 euros almost 15 years ago. Even if jobs exist, then many will choose to go abroad.

Leaving Greece. Photo: Tim Judah

At the other end of the scale, even many migrants – both legal and illegal – no longer want to do the jobs that Greeks don’t want, either because they are badly paid or because they are poorly treated. “In 2017 I worked for more than 12 hours a day at a bakery starting at four in the morning and got paid 15 euros a day plus bread,” says Erjalda Kucuku, an Albanian who lived for many years in Greece. Now in Italy, she gets paid 80 euros for a morning looking after an elderly person.

Surveys show that Greeks are pessimistic about their future. It’s once sizeable middle class, says Goudis, “is experiencing a transformation”, with a large proportion now on a par with the poorer parts of Greek society.

Family-owned small and medium-sized businesses have been devasted by years of crisis including COVID-19, and all of this conspires to send more Greeks abroad and to have ever fewer children. By 2050 Greece’s population is projected to be 9.5 million, more than 1 million less than today and 14.64 per cent less than at its peak in 2010.

A history of emigration and immigration

As old men click their worry beads in the shade of their local café, it is easy to imagine a Greece that was ever thus. Indeed, peruse the Greek media and you will learn that DNA evidence “proves” that Greeks are descended from the Mycenaeans who dominated much of mainland Greece 3,500 years ago. That may be true, but it obscures a complex and bloody historical picture. After World War II, Greece was virtually a mono-ethnic nation. But for centuries before that it had been anything but. Huge movements of people, war, flight and genocide changed all that.

In the territories that are now Greek, centuries of Ottoman rule meant that many, as elsewhere in the Balkans, converted to Islam. There were also Turks and Albanians, the latter being both Orthodox or Muslim. In Thessaloniki, the largest single population were Ladino-speaking Jews whose ancestors had been invited to settle by the Ottomans in the wake of the Spanish Inquisition of 1492. There, they outnumbered Romaniotes, Greek-speaking Jews who had lived in Greece since antiquity. Parts of the north of Greece were also populated by Slavs.

The shaping of the demography of modern Greece began with the Greek revolution of 1821. The subsequent war of independence triggered massacres of Greeks by Ottoman forces including Egyptian troops sent to quell the Greeks, and of Muslims, Turks, Jews and Muslim Albanians by Greeks. The result was massive ethnic cleansing of the Peloponnese, which was to a great extent cleared of non-Greeks.

In 1913 the population of Thessaloniki, which had been taken from the Ottomans the year before, was recorded as being 157,889, of which 39 per cent were Jewish, 29 per cent Turkish, 25 per cent Greek, 4 per cent Bulgarian, 2 per cent Roma and 1 per cent others. The “Turkish” figure most likely includes all Muslims, including Muslim Albanians. Today, the population of the wider metropolitan area is around 1 million, very few of whose great-grandparents would have lived there, having come from Asia Minor.

In 1923 in the wake of the Greek defeat in its war with Turkey, the two signed a convention in Lausanne. This led to the exchange of the majority of Greek Orthodox Christians in Anatolia, most but not all of whom spoke Greek, with Muslims of Greece, including Greek-speaking ones. In this way some 1.2 million came to Greece or, as many had already fled, they were prohibited from returning, while some 400,000 left for Turkey. The convention followed one signed in 1919 with Bulgaria by which Greeks and Bulgarians were exchanged, but in this case the numbers were more modest, not least because the numbers involved were smaller and this emigration was not compulsory.

World War II was to see the murder of almost the entire Jewish population of Thessaloniki and the Romaniotes. Thousands of Muslim Cham Albanians in the north of Greece were ethnically cleansed or fled to Albania. And in the wake of Greek Civil War, some 100,000 Greeks and Slav Macedonians fled, the former later being allowed to return.

With the exception of the Turkish population in Western Thrace, which was allowed to stay under the terms of the Lausanne convention, post-war Greece was no longer a multicultural country, but it was still very poor. The first post-war decades were thus ones that saw mass emigration to the US and Australia, and then Germany, Austria and Scandinavia above all. This slowed as Greece became more prosperous and from the mid-1970s many diaspora Greeks even returned.

The end of communism saw the beginning of a new chapter in Greek demographic history. From being a country of emigration, Greece suddenly turned into being a country of mass immigration. Hundreds of thousands now poured into the country, the largest single group coming from Albania, including members of Albania’s ethnic Greek community. Ethnic Greeks – including some falsely claiming to be Greek – also arrived from the former Soviet Union, especially Georgia and the Black Sea. Today, 1.36 million people in Greece are foreign born and in 2021 there were 921,485 foreign citizens, (not including illegal migrants,) registered as living in Greece.

According to Byron Kotzamanis, professor of demography at the University of Thessaly in Volos, the biggest single proportion of those born abroad and foreign citizens are Albanians. Of the 700,000 of them, about half now have Greek citizenship, and of those a large proportion are ethnic Greeks from Albania – or people who claim to be.

The world financial crisis that hit Greece from 2009 saw yet another chapter open. The devastation wreaked on the Greek economy led to Greeks emigrating once more.

In 2015 Greece became the frontline of the migration crisis. More than a million people, from Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere, began to flow through Greece. However, include all those who came beginning in 2011 and ending in 2021 and that number swells to 1.7 million. How many remain is hard to say, says Kotzamanis, but he believes that number to be some 200,000.

First published on 8 September 2022 on Reportingdemocracy.org, a journalistic platform run by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network. The article was produced within the framework of the Europe’s Futures project.

This text is protected by copyright: © Tim Judah. If you are interested in republication, please contact the editorial team. Copyright information on pictures, graphics and videos are noted directly at the illustrations or on top of the article. Cover picture: Illustration: Ewelina Karpowiak / Klawe Rzeczy

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