The Greek Family

by Greek Reporter

While conversing with the readers, it became evident to the writer that the traditional Greek families are not that different from the typical American ones, in most of their forms and transformations.

But before moving forward a distinction might be helpful. One can safely differentiate the Traditional Rural Greek Family from the Modern urbanized one. Urbanization in Greece came late in the 60s & 70s, and being fast, caused differences between the two to be more pronounced.

The Traditional Family

Greek families are rather small, cohesive and live close together. Sometimes even under the same roof. While younger people seek their independence and try to live on their own, it is not a rare phenomenon to live with their parents, at least until they start a family of their own. As a natural consequence, the Greek family is supportive to its younger members and a special kind of household economy has been formed.

With the whole family being close, a young man that is forced to odd jobs will get by with the help of the elders. The elders will help with babysitting later on, saving on the expense of hiring outside help. In a similar fashion the young couple will take care of their parents as they get older. This way another income is added in the house, that of the granpa’s (-ma’s) pension.

Another characteristic is that the family invests in kid education. Over the years it has become a prerequisite to give kids a college and above education, the result being Greece having the highest percentage of university educated people in the EU. In older days education used to be a way to a better life as a graduate in a bigger city, and then it evolved in a means to secure a good paying job at the public sector. Now it is only a small edge in getting a little better paying job in an inflexible market with steep competition that does not need that many college degrees.

Family Business

It is not uncommon for families to own a small local business that is carried to the next generation. This means that there is little risk since there is a steady clientele and a small capital to risk. On the other hand these small businesses are not competitive against the big players. With the exception of the tourism oriented ones, their sheer number makes the Greek economy an internal one that aims in servicing itself and not exporting.

It is also common for a family to differentiate its income sources, especially in the rural regions. While the man may have his own business the wife will maintain a small shop, like the local grocery, cafe of the 7-11 store. The younger members may be employed in the public or civil sector adding a different source of income to the family, while at the same they lend a helping hand in their parents business, especially if it is farming which usually is labor intensive.

In effect this small, family-scale economy may not generate big profits but it is flexible versatile and adaptable.

Family Housing

If you have seen the “My Big Fat Greek Wedding“ movie, you may remember the last scene. The couple moves in their own home, which is gifted by the father of the bride. But the big surprise is that it is built in the same lot, right beside his own!

Indeed, the very first priority for a Greek family is to have their own house. Next priority is a car and a third is a house for the kids. This used to happen rarely and after a lot of hard work and savings, but coming the 60-70s an indigenous method of acquiring houses for all in the family was devised.

Land to build modern buildings being scarce, ownership of the family lot and house would be transferred to a contractor that would build an apartment building and give back a third of these apartments to the family. This way the family not only had a “modern living space” but would secure extra housing for the kids or extra income if the apartments were to be leased.

With the advent of the crisis the real estate market went to a standstill, and the growing unemployment brought more pressure on it as demand for leased apartments dropped. Practically this system cannot work anymore and it is a good luck that most families have already benefited from it.

The Family’s Farm

Greece is a small country with a lot of islands and mountains in the inland. That means less space to inhabit and SMALL lots for the Greek people. The average farmer owns about 10 hectares, and the small family lots are about 1 acre big (though there may be 2-3 of them). That is hardly a productive force but coupled with a dynamic species (like peaches, apples, olives, and grapes) the produce will supplement the day job income well.

In such low-scale farming there can also be space for a small garden. Rural families, especially the ones in villages of 1-2 thousand people and less, will work on gardening, drying food, canning and deep freezing while at the same time maintain a small stock of chicken, the odd pig and a couple of goats (the “poor man’s cow” as they have been called). It is obvious that even if Greece defaults and the system goes to shambles these people will not starve!

But all of the above typify the Greek family economics up until the late 90s. Since then a transformation has taken place. A craving for a well paying job in the state services organizations brought corruption and a move towards the larger urban areas. Some family lots were abandoned and it was good luck that the crisis happened when the older generations had already retired.

The Modern (Urban) Greek Family

It started with the transformation of Greece into an urban society in the 70-80s. New jobs in the public sector and its services opened up in the big cities, and the need for more houses brought new jobs in the private sector. For a few decades the system was blooming and people eagerly left their villages and their parents behind.

And to a certain extend they were alienated by the traditional family model explained above. Now they had to find someone to cater for kids, they needed a second car for the wife that should commute to her own job, and they would only travel back to the village in the major holidays. Let alone the bigger grocery bill as more things had to be bought from the supermarket where you had to spent gas to get to.

And then came the Euro in the beginning of the 2000s (a.k.a. “noughties”). Easy hard currency can buy a lot of the once scarce and much craved for imported goods. Loan interest were in the single digit figure. These combined with an economy that was marked by an inflation of 15% in the 90s and you will get three things: A credit card frenzy, overspending and the demise of the family savings plan.

Housing loans where also cheap, and who would wait tens of years to save for a flat? To say the truth, it seemed prudent at the moment. The interest rates being so low, the monthly loan installment was not much higher than one would pay for renting a similar apartment. Even if a new couple already had their own house they would go for a bigger car (the number of Utility vehicles that live an easy life of street rides soared) and a country home close at sea.

One more thing that happened is that easy money got people accustomed to be paying for things to be done for them and not by them. The new housewife would pay for house chores to be done for her, and the husband would not bother with fixing things around the house. He would hire someone for it and would replace broken appliances with new (better) ones. This means two things. More money spent and loss of skills, both proven much needed with the advent of the crisis.

Another effect of such an urbanization is that when the younger generation become separated from their rural family, the family will looses income twice - Once by the youngsters’ salary and twice by loosing their helping hands that must now be replaced with hired help.

To the eyes of this writer, all of the above describe a society that its pieces are interwoven with thin strings made from easy money. The more strings break, the bigger the load becomes on the remaining ones.

Time to Burst the Bubble

The Greek economy bubble burst in 2009, though it has been hovering close to the needle for quite some time. Some say that Greece should have defaulted by 1993.

So now it is less easy money and wages, loans have to be paid back, and people have to readjust to a lifestyle that they may have never experienced. While the Greek economy, income and lifestyle has downsized by about 30%, most people are still getting by, at least for now. Indeed there are couples that lose both their jobs, carry a burden of loans, and are still coping.

But Middle class and Lower class families are affected differently . In both cases borrowing, overspending and living above their means was a way they both shared. But while a 30% drop in the income –or even a job loss- can shake a middle class family, it will topple a lower income one.

Furthermore a specific occurrence to the Greek crisis is that it is developing into a stable situation. Contrary to the Argentina experience, the middle class did not loose their money overnight. Situation-conscious people are securing their savings in cash as Euro notes will turn into hard currency on their hands if the Greek economy defaults and is forced to exit the Eurozone.

It is the poor they suffer the most and those with loans on their backs with payments they cannot meet, irrespective of social status. And just as soon as the unpaid household electricity bills reached a record breaking of 425 million Euro this month, the state imposed a one-time surcharge on property taxes to be included in the electricity bill itself. For this trimester alone income and housing taxes will reach or exceed a month’s paycheck.

The effect on people already living below the poverty line will be nightmarish to say the least, as they face payment or a government sponsored loss of the electrical service and a writ of seizure of their meager assets. (all this elaborately means that the new tax will be incorporated in the bill. Those that cannot pay what amounts to a paycheck of taxation will be in risk of loosing both the electrical service and the state taking legal action against them)

Living the Crisis

Under such a financial condition it is expected that most will have to adapt to a meager and more traditional lifestyle. Some will go back to their villages and try a new smaller life. Gardening, canning and freezing is coming back. Family farm lots and labor are no longer frowned upon.

That is the sunny side of things. Parents that live on a pension cannot chip in that much, especially when the face pension cuts. And starting over in another place, in another job, is not easy when you need the capital for the land, the tools and the machinery.

Family is coming to the rescue once more as it provides housing and a generous contribution the now-desperate families revenues.

And it is not only people moving inside the country that is happening. A lot of young graduates holding university degrees are seeking a job abroad. Sometimes they are leveraged to lower salaries than the natives, but his is far better than the prospects back home where the economy is back-stepping to a pre-industrial era.

What may come as a surprise is the immigration wave of the elder people. Some of them that live in northern Greece move to nearby Bulgaria upon their retirement. There, life being much cheaper, they not only make do with their meager Greek pension, but sometimes they can save a tidbit too.

A small note must be inserted here on the effects of the situation on the small businesses that amount to a considerable percentage of the Greek economy.

Next to construction these have been blighted the most. One could say they are caught amidst a slap-dance (That where the victim is surrounded by the bullies and is slapped on the head)

The banks are on the verge of collapsing and hold their money instead of pushing liquidity in the market.

The continuing austerity has drained the money from the consumers wallet. On top of that, new measures that are threatened but never enforced have scared them into abstaining from any unnecessary purchases. And the repeating taxation, with new taxes every trimester, hitting both consumers and shop owners has brought the businesses on their knees.

The effect is that a quarter of the small shops are closed, with many to follow soon. It is a common secret that some businesses and shops are kept open to a net loss that consumes the past years profits. It is the expectation of an early retirement or just the desperate hope of times getting better that keep the owners going.

The effect is systemic and to some it seems like it was planned beforehand.

Even scarier, that recessive spiral we are spinning down into, has started affecting bigger businesses too. At the moment medium sized ones are facing liquidity problems and are delaying payments and paychecks.

The system has become so unstable that even the Greek export firms are having trouble. In order to maintain some minimal liquidity the banking system is delaying part of the needed influx of currency transfers. (This means that while the foreign payments are wired, the banks delay the exporters from getting their money).

Conclusion

So after 2 years of crisis, political babbling and failed austerity measures, the writing on the wall is clear to read. The Greek society is transforming violently and at the cost of blood and tears.

To what it is transforming into no one can know. It will be an interesting, yet painful, transition to live.

Greek Reporter - 29 September, 2011

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