Friday, May 20, 2011

The Young and Hopeless Greek Return to their Cheaper Countryside. Could it Happen here?

photo
photo: flickr
Farming in Greece outside Marpissa on Paros. 2006.


Recently, the UK Guardian ran an article, "Greek crisis forces thousands of Athenians into rural migration - Debt, unemployment and poverty is causing mass unrest and thousands to seek a cheaper lifestyle outside the capital."

"Athens has failed its young people. It has nothing to offer them any more. Our politicians are idiots … they have disappointed us greatly," said Dikiakos, who will soon be joined by 10 friends who have also decided to escape the capital. They are part of an internal migration, thousands of Greeks seeking solace in rural areas as the debt-stricken country grapples with its gravest economic crisis since the second world war.

We all know what is happening in Greece: austerity, joblessness, bankruptcy, ongoing failed politics, corruption, and ineffectual government which has gone on for years. Now, for lack of better alternatives, Greece's younger generation is returning to the rural areas. They say that with any encouragement from their government, the movement would gain momentum.

No, the U.S. is not Greece... yet... and I don't want to sensationalize as that's not my style. But, there are some interesting parallels going on here that I can't help but point out and pose the question, "What if?"

Back to the Guardian article....
A mass exodus of the nation's brightest and best has added to fears that in addition to failing one or perhaps two generations, near-bankrupt Greece stands as never before to lose its intellectual class. "Nobody is speaking openly about this but the prospects for the Greek economy are going to get much worse as the brain drain accelerates and the country loses its best minds," said Professor Lois Lambrianidis, who teaches regional economics at the University of Macedonia.

"Around 135,000, or 9% of tertiary educated Greeks, were living abroad and that was before the crisis began. They simply cannot find jobs in a service-oriented economy that depends on low-paid cheap labour."


And youth unrest is not just happening in Greece. In Spain, the youth have started the 15-M Protest Movement. This group is the "best educated, best informed, most international, and most multilingual the country has ever seen" and they have a 45 percent unemployment rate. They have jobs earning less than 1,000 euros per month since the country's "two-tier labor system ensures that most young people with jobs have low-paying and unstable temporary contracts, while the lucrative permanent contracts are mainly in the hands of older, white-collar Spaniards." They are rightfully angry.

Here in the United States, I can attest to the hopeless state of the recent college graduate's situations since my son is amongst them. With a degree in architecture, he and many of his friends have been scrounging for minimum wage service industry jobs this past year. They are working side by side with illegal immigrant labor, if they are "lucky" enough to find a job at all. He attended the funeral of a suicide victim/friend a few weeks ago who had just signed up for a job at a call center. That friend's failed degree? Journalism.

From the NYT's article: Among the members of the class of 2010, just 56 percent had held at least one job by this spring, when the survey was conducted... Many have taken jobs that do not make use of their skills; about only half of recent college graduates said that their first job required a college degree. These are the same kids who just experienced living lifestyles of the excesses of a credit bubble about to pop as they were growing up. What a contrast. What a societal lie they were led to believe, that here in America, every generation lives a life better than the previous one.

Earlier this year, at a fast food stop along I-80 in sparsely populated western Nebraska, a cheerful male worker in his early 20's added up my complete tab, with tax, in his head, while preparing food AND waiting on the next customer. Now, maybe that sort of thing happens in Northwest Portland, but it doesn't happen in the rural Midwest. At least, it didn't used to. His situation was fairly obvious.

Thirty percent of our American farmers are over 65 years of age. Due to policy, farms have grown larger and larger in size at the same time the smaller farmer can't survive economically. Farmland prices have skyrocketed, preventing entry by the younger generation. A rural youth "brain drain" from the Midwest has gone on for decades, just as it goes on in China, India, and other nations around the world today.

The younger generation in today's America will eventually be strapped with our debt. National debt, retirement debt, pension debt, bank gambling debt, medical entitlement debt, and their own college debt. We've kicked all of those failure-of-politics cans down roads for them to pick up later. Future garbage collectors, if you will.

Some wise voices are warning that if our housing and debt crisis don't stall our economic growth model, then energy prices and "peak oil" will. High priced energy would also force back smaller sized farms, require a return to far more farm labor, and necessitate crop and livestock production using fewer energy inputs than today's energy intensive food system.

As we start putting all of these puzzle pieces together, next, let's consider that whereas a home in a nice Midwestern town of 100,000 might cost $200,000, you can find houses for $3,000 in tiny, rural Midwestern towns. These bargain priced houses often come with enough yard area, rich soil and abundant rainfall, on which to grow food. And they may also come with entrepreneurial opportunities since Main Streets in these small farming communities have lost their local essential services. Why? Because the cheap gas of recent decades has allowed rural dwellers to travel many miles to purchase goods and haul them home in their big Chevy Suburbans. Could the local food co-op or corner grocery store be ripe for a come-back?

A vision starts to emerge here, of a somewhat desperate younger generation seeking out a lower-cost way of life while adjusting to the nation's changing realities.... a vision of a gradual younger migration to the rural food-growing regions of the United States with concurrent small community revitalization.
K. McDonald

5 comments:

  1. well, yes we've been predicting this for 30 years. At some point it almost has to happen. Either cities will collapse under their own burdens or energy scarity will cause it. It could well be happening. As one who moved to the country 10 years ago for precisely these reasons I already have my feet on the soil and feel more secure. I am sure many others are beginning to move the same way.

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  2. Nice one Kay. It always strikes me as funny when I see demographic reports that predict the urban trend will continue long into the future. I think it can't go on like this and expect some kind of reversal but the pace and timing is very difficult to call.

    A Greek type situation could certainly occur in the US for purely financial reasons, and such an event would curtail imports of energy into the US, so these are connected feedbacks that reinforce each other.

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  3. I have a degree in biochemistry. Graduated with a 3.59 average with honors. Went to Vanderbilt, was going to get a PhD. I was grossly mislead with every turn. Although "service" is far better than ever before, I will gladly take the rude people back to allow the others to have a better life. I am so thankful and blessed for my current situation, and pray it remains sustainable.

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  4. Kay, can you name some of these rural towns and states that are selling decent housing for 3,000? I'd jump at the chance to move somewhere like that and start farming for a living.

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  5. Anon
    If you are a very independent type who doesn't mind living remotely all you need to do is look at the towns with populations of less than 500-1000 in Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, N & S Dakota, parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Missouri and other Midwestern states. It can't have recreational value and it can't be near a larger town or city. The more remote it is the cheaper it is. Some would be free in fact as you'd be assuming the liability of someone who owns it and wants to get rid of it. I'd guess that if your goal was to find a house with more land attached, like an acre or two, it could be found. There might be nearby opportunities to find work on nearby farms, too, because finding labor in these areas is very difficult for the farmers.

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