Greek economic struggle takes a toll on family life
ATHENS – The Greek debt crisis, now in its sixth year, is making its impact felt at the core of daily life in Greece – the family.
Since the start of the crisis in late 2009, the economic foundations of many families have begun cracking, as the country’s debt mountain reached more than $360 billion in 2015.
From marriage to divorce to child bearing, the ability to pay has become an essential part of the decision to take on family obligations for Greeks from all walks of life.
Greek wedding ceremonies and receptions – often complete with live music, tables of catered Greek delicacies and a large venue that can fit dozens of guests – can easily become one of the largest expenses a family makes.
“What separates a Greek wedding from any other wedding are the people involved,” Dimitra Koali, an event planner at The Twelve Events wedding and event planning in downtown Athens said. “As a community we are very warm, passionate, loud and extroverted, so when our kids get married, you see the whole family get involved because they want to be part of what makes you happy on this special day of your life.”
Though all but a tiny percentage of the population identifies as Greek Orthodox, for the first time, there are more civil weddings taking place in Greece than religious weddings. According to the Archdiocese of Athens, religious wedding ceremonies steadily dropped: 3,692 in 2009 and 3,261 in 2010 to 2,435 in 2015.
Maria Dandouneli, head of the Office of Civil Marriages at Athens Town Hall, said the reason most couples choose a civil marriage over a church wedding is money. Even then, she said, some couples come into town hall for a civil marriage, and can’t even afford the initial $17 paperwork
. Thus, she said, some municipalities throughout Greece offer the paperwork to couples for free.
The ceremonies in the Athens Town Hall typically take place on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. She said they average 12 weddings per week.
Dandouneli and her coworker are often asked to be witnesses at the civil ceremonies during afternoons at work and on the weekends, but they do not get paid for those hours of work because of the crisis’ impact on the municipality.
“There is more work, less employees and less pay due to the crisis,” Dandouneli said. “We are receiving half the money we used to before the crisis and are taking on way more work because there are only two of us working on the team now since many were let go.”
While the Greek Orthodox Church still stands opposed to divorce, Archimandrite Titos Garefalakis, who holds one of the highest monastic ranks below the Bishop, said that attitudes toward the sanctity of marriage are changing in Greece and divorce has become more common.
But the economic crisis may be a reason for a slowing of this trend.
In 2013, the number of marriages almost equaled divorces. In 2014 marriages outnumbered divorces by 647. Garefalakis said this is not because marriage increased, it is because people did not have the money to afford the lawyers, judges and the entire process of getting divorced.
Now, couples who get divorced do so because they want to get remarried in the future, he said. Many people consider themselves divorced but do not go through the formal process for financial reasons. But he said he doubted that divorce rates had much to do with the economic crisis, as many believe.
“The couples just don’t get along and that is it,” he said. “We have been through worse in Greece and even then we did not get divorced. It is an easy way out to say the crisis split up our marriage”
Nikolaos Takis, a psychology professor at The American College of Greece, said it is not uncommon for couples to live under the same roof and consider themselves divorced. He said it is easier to go through this difficult phase in the economy together because people can share expenses, there is more family support and only one home to take care of instead of two, he said.
“The idea of going through all those difficult phases as a team instead of doing that as an individual is something that exists very much in our cultural DNA,” Takis said. “But now it has to do with all those practicalities and all those reasons that will enable us to survive more effectively.”
Life at Home
For many Greeks, living with family may be the only viable option. And, Takis said, it is becoming more common for many members of a family to live off the small pension of an elder.
The number of Greeks aged 25 to 34 living with their parents reached 51.6 percent in 2014, one of the highest rates in the European Union, according to Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union.
Because children are moving back with their parents, many are also waiting longer to have their own children or are choosing not to have any children at all, said Laura Alipranti, research director at the National Center for Social Research in Greece.
According to research from Greece’s National Center for Social Research, one in four Greek women will never have a child, and most of those who do postpone their first child until their thirties.
In 2013, the average age for women having their first child was 33. Though some women choose to wait until they are more financially stable, many worry that if they take maternity leave, they will not return to a job, Alipranti said.
According to Greece’s National Center for Social Research, the average cost of raising a child is more than $120,000. Because of this cost, women cannot afford to put their careers in jeopardy by taking leave, Alipranti said.
“My generation is upset,” she said. “The younger generations are expected to provide us with grandchildren, but it is hard because the children don’t leave the paternal home to have a family life. They don’t want to make their own family.”
During the financial crisis, Greeks have reported increased feelings of depression and anxiety, and are witnessing the highest rates of suicide ever reported in the country.
To ease these stresses, Takis said the family has taken on an even larger role than before, replacing many social institutions.
For example, he said families often turn to each other for psychological help and to discharge negative tensions rather than seeing a professional.
According to Alipranti’s research published in the Konstantinos Karamanlis Institute for Democracy’s journal Liberal Emphasis, 70 percent of people who express the need for psychological help during the crisis turn to family and relatives in comparison to the 6 percent who chose social services.
As families move back together, they are turning to each other as an outlet to discharge frustration and tension and to help emerge from the tunnel of the economic crisis, Takis said.
Takis said it is common for people to have feelings of depression, anxiety and extreme sadness because of the crisis, but there are also more negative consequences.
He said Greece had the lowest rates of suicide attempts – successful and unsuccessful – in Europe before the economic crisis hit. Now, Greece has one of the highest rates of suicide, but many go undocumented, he said.
To help combat the increase, the master’s program of counseling in psychology and psychotherapy at the graduate school of The American College of Greece and the municipality of Athens is teaming up to offer free counseling services to any Greek who needs it.
Takis said it is one of the college’s contributions in the effort to help Greece overcome the economic crisis.
In his private practice, Takis said many of his clients tell him they are coming in late for a session, but they never come in.
“Today, another one fell in the railway of the metro and it’s horrible,” Takis said, referring to a person who committed suicide by jumping in front of a metro train.
Takis said the crisis is financially and emotionally draining to Greeks and it frustrates him when people criticize Greeks’ lifestyle.
“It angers me is when I hear people abroad say Greek people are lazy, eat moussaka, and dance… it’s not like that. We work so hard for peanuts,” Takis said.
With the country buried in debt and the unemployment rate hovering around 24 percent in 2015, many people do not see Greece emerging from this dark period in the near future.
More and more young people are moving out of the country to pursue education and careers that they feel they cannot obtain in Greece.
Alipranti’s daughter, Tina, studied in London for her master’s degree in economics, and moved to Brussels four years ago for a career as a human resources assistant.
Tina Alipranti said the economic crisis has contributed to her decision to prolong her stay abroad, but she eventually wants to move back to Greece.
“I believe my generation could move back to Greece if the socioeconomic situation would be more stable and we could find professional opportunities equally rewarding with our current ones,” she said.
Myrsini Apospori, a 19-year-old student at The American College of Greece, said she wants to leave the country to pursue a career in advertising and will only return to Greece if the poor economic situation is resolved.
“I do not think Greece is a place that offers many opportunities for us,” Apospori said. “I hope to leave Greece, but I also hope things get better so I can come back at some point, because right now it does not offer me anything.”