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Greece: a humble look in

Given the election results in Greece this week I thought I'd share a relevatn blog post I wrote for Sundance after fieldwork in Athens in 2013. Original post here.


A spontaneous focus group

Underground in a viewing facility the groups have been delayed due to riots. The metro has been closed and respondents have had to find another way to get here. Rather than cancel the groups we wait: perhaps a sign of Greek commitment, or perhaps the first look into the current economic situation. In London I would never expect respondents to battle TFL, but I guess an incentive goes a lot further in a country with rising youth unemployment (currently at 45%) and an economically stretched middle-class.

The delay offered the opportunity for a more in-depth discussion on the view on the ground. With my respondents made up of two client-side brand managers, an interpreter and two local moderators I had for me the perfect middle class focus group. (What a treat – these respondents were informed, middle-class professionals who are rarely asked their opinion. No ground was no go, opinions were forthcoming – and varied – and, in honesty, quite emotional).

It’s not all as it seems

Proud citizens, they keep their heads up, smile, act positively and professionally but it is difficult to remain this way for long. There is nothing to do but be positive, though in reality the situation is depressing and profoundly frustrating. This proud nation of friendly people feels out of control and in a state of flux. They have become the play thing of Brussels where their voice matter little. “We are just a small country of 11 million people. They can never let this happen to the economy of Italy or Spain, but we are their experiment”.

Squeezed from both ends

Their mounting frustration resides in the growing sense of helplessness, both individually and as a nation. Salaries have dropped, taxes have gone up, and prices have either remained the same or also increased. Added to this, is the personal debt that was so easily entered into a decade ago (and in fact encouraged) which acts as an unpleasant personal reminder that the good times so quickly and easily handed to them on a plate along with the single currency, are firmly behind them.

“We were never ready for the Euro. There were these big countries that wanted us little countries to join the economic community to make their proposition stronger. They knew we would have to run to keep up but there was nothing there in case we tripped or couldn’t keep up.”

Euro resentment

The Euro is just bad news. Savings and pensions devalued during the transitional inflation. A high life (that they couldn’t afford) was encouraged (“we could get a loan for everything. You could take out even a holiday loan. Or have three or four or five credit cards”). They are now forced to return to the life they had before. There was nothing wrong with the life they had before, but in the interim they tasted better. A better they are still paying for, making the return to ‘normality’ even more bitter and painful.

“We are not a stable country. We always go one way or another. We vote green for five years. Then we vote blue for five years. But for this election the most popular person in the poll is nobody.” Not only have they lost faith in politicians but they have seen how the most recent leader ( the interim prime minister Lucas Papademos) has been chewed up and spat out by the system. “We were told he would be good. He had a good CV. Europe liked him. The US liked him. He was popular. But now we have seen that even he is just ground down by the system.” And regardless of who gets in, they will be subject to Brussels.

A burden of the middle-classes

Added to this external control and constant flux (“the policies keep changing”) there is the strain placed on the formally employed middle class. Not only are they the ones to whom all the new sudden taxes are sprung upon, but they are also the ones with honestly declared incomes. “Doctors or lawyers don’t pay full tax because they never give you a receipt or fully declare their income. And for most people it is like that. So it is those of use that work for [client] or the government who have to pay all the tax.” Even teenage respondents are not immune: “Fancy a ten thousand euro prize?” “I don’t know, will I be taxed on it…?!?”

Outside, however, Athens ticks on – it is clear that this ancient city has remained active and lively over the centuries due to the flexible pragmatism of the citizens that inhabit it.

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