After suffering an exodus of young talent in the decade following the debt crisis, Greece’s slowly improving economy is luring those expats home, armed with the education and determination to lead the country’s revival.
It’s a baking-hot September day when we meet Katerina Georgopoulou at the Basil & Elise Goulandris Foundation in Athens. She’s in the middle of feverish preparations for the museum’s grand opening the following month. The 11-storey building is a significant addition to Greece’s culture scene: it has been constructed to house an impressive collection of modern and contemporary art, including Picasso, Van Gogh and Giacometti, plus celebrated Greek artists, and boasts a state-of-the-art auditorium, a library, a shop and a café-restaurant.
“It’s been a long time coming,” says Georgopoulou, as she shows off the gleaming library with its 6,000-plus art-history titles. She heads up the foundation’s educational programmes and, since joining the team in the summer of 2019, often comes here to research content for the museum’s print and audio guides. “I remember visiting Athens and walking past the construction site, wondering when it would open. I never expected to be part of the team when the time came to cut the ribbon.”
It was a reasonable expectation given that until a few months ago Georgopoulou hadn’t lived in Greece for nearly a decade. She is one of about 400,000 people – mostly young, educated and from cities – who emigrated as Greece’s economy spiralled after the crash of 2008/9. Most went looking for better work opportunities as youth unemployment soared, reaching a peak of 60 per cent in 2013 (it’s now less than 20 per cent). Georgopoulou, for example, moved to London aged 29 in 2011 and spent eight years working for the Saatchi gallery. Losing many of its best and brightest was a major blow to Greece.
But something is shifting. Georgopoulou is one of a rising number of Greeks choosing to be part of a country that, although still recovering from years of austerity, is starting to find its feet. The economy is growing, the start-up scene is booming and cultural spaces are breathing life into abandoned buildings. According to recent figures from the Hellenic Statistical Authority, almost 32,000 Greek expats returned in 2017, the highest number in seven years. Could Greece’s brain drain finally be ending?
“People are ready for a change and I’m not just talking about politics,” says fashion designer Christina Pistofidou, 29. “I think the crisis made Greeks see things differently. There’s a positive momentum – to put in the work and put things right.”
Pistofidou set up her resortwear label, Wéngko Molé, in the UK in 2014 after studying performance costume at the University of Edinburgh. She’s in the process of registering the company in Greece, having returned a year ago. “Moving back has been gradual,” she says from her Athens studio, which is lined with brightly coloured silk dresses and trousers from her sixth collection. “The printing of our fabrics still takes place in the UK but I’ve been increasing my collaborations with showrooms in Greece. All the sewing and final production takes place here – everything costs far less.” Most of her wholesale orders now come from Greece and she does many of her campaign photoshoots here. “There’s so much potential for growth, especially when your product is linked to the summer season,” she says.
Pistofidou originally considered moving the company to Greece two years ago but was put off by the amount of red tape involved. “It was a nightmare,” she says. “There were so many specifications and prerequisites and also a lot of uncertainty in the country due to the political situation. Now things are more geared towards providing a stable environment for small to medium businesses.” Since winning the elections in July, the pro-business government has pledged a roster of reforms including corporate-tax cuts and a more streamlined process for setting up shop. “This year, the timing just felt right,” Pistofidou adds.
Change is definitely in the air, agrees recent returnee Michalis Rikakis, who left a job at Siemens in 2012 amid an increasingly depressed atmosphere. “Until 2016 there was so much pessimism and perpetuation of negative stereotypes but after 2017 the media coverage calmed down and that helped. Perception can sometimes change reality itself.”
Nearly one million jobs have been lost in Greece over the past six years, says the Hellenic Statistical Authority. But that’s slowly reversing as new companies – particularly in technology, agriculture and tourism – build on the country’s growing confidence and find success, pulling back expats in the process. Rikakis, a computer engineer, was working for Google in Sweden when he was approached by Workable, a new platform offering innovative recruitment software. “It was always the plan to come back at some point but there’s no way I’d have left my job if the right opportunity hadn’t presented itself,” he says. “There are few companies that would have tempted me to return but Workable is one. Corporate culture is changing in Greece. We’re not insular any more. At Workable we deal with clients from all over the world.”
On top of coming back to build their own businesses and join promising start-ups, young Greeks are choosing to bolster older firms, often run by their own family. Vasilis Mandrekas, 27, returned in 2017 after six years working and studying in Canada and the US to take his place at his family’s 70-year-old dairy business in Corinth, a city in the south. The company, known for its Greek yoghurt, is present in 10 countries and has a production plant in Wisconsin. “People still put their trust in the ‘Made in Greece’ brand so I was excited to come back and help move the company forwards,” says Mandrekas, who’s now the factory’s operations manager. “I’m working on expanding into a new building here in Greece, which will double our capacity.”
Things are far from perfect here but lower living costs, a Mediterranean lifestyle and a sense that returnees can contribute to the country’s comeback are big draws. According to a recent survey by the Athens-based National Documentation Centre, six in 10 Greeks living abroad want to return. To capitalise on this, the new government appointed Steve Vranakis, former head of Google’s Creative Lab, as Greece’s inaugural chief creative officer and tasked him with burnishing the country’s image, serving as a special adviser to prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and leading projects to entice back the diaspora.
Independent initiatives to help with the situation are springing up too. Brain Regain was set up last year to connect young Greeks with mentors from different business sectors who can provide advice. “There are people who want to return and don’t know where to start. We’re trying to connect young people with those who know the market,” says Stathis Potamitis, an Athens-based lawyer and member of the non-profit’s board.
“I don’t think young Greeks should stop migrating to work or study – they should be encouraged to reach their full potential wherever is best,” says Georgopoulou, who took her master’s in London after completing her studies in Athens, a common practice for Greeks who can afford it. “But I do think that young people need to be presented with enough opportunities to feel that the doors are open for them to return. Brain drain can become brain gain if all the knowledge and skills picked up abroad are redirected back into the country.”
2009 Global financial crash. Greece’s credit rating downgraded due to its government debt. Austerity measures first introduced.
2010 First bailout of Greece, worth €100bn, agreed by the imf, the European Central Bank and the European Commission.
2011 Tens of thousands of protesters march to oppose new austerity laws. Prime minister George Papandreou resigns.
2012 A second EU bailout is agreed.
2013 Unemployment rises to 26.8 per cent with 60 per cent youth unemployment.
2015 Anti-austerity Syriza wins election. PM Alexis Tsipras U-turns and accepts third bailout, making it the largest rescue package ever.
2018 Greece officially exits bailout programme.
2019 Greek economy returns to positive economic growth. Pro-business, centre-right New Democracy party wins the general election.