What it would look like if other countries had to cope with Greece’s shocking brain drain

A country for old men.
A country for old men.
Image: Reuters/Marko Djurica
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Imagine if in the next five years, the economic situation got so bad that nearly everyone in your country’s biggest city moved abroad. New York City, empty and deserted. Shanghai, deathly quiet. Mumbai, ground to a halt. That, relatively speaking, is what has happened to Greece during its economic crisis.

As talks between Greece and its creditors grind on, the negotiations to extend Greece’s bailout are centered on debt levels, deficit targets, tax rates, and other financial measures. But filling in the country’s financial shortfall is one thing; reversing its brain drain is another.

Over the past five years, nearly 300,000 people have left Greece, or just under 3% of its pre-crisis population. A brutal economic depression, eye-watering unemployment, and the promise of austerity for years to come will do that.

A shrinking population is the last thing a country already weighed down by debt and low productivity needs. It hurts even more that young people, in particular, are abandoning the country in droves.

In demographic terms, a 3% decline over such a short time is a disaster—the country has lost the equivalent of half of Athens, or the whole of Thessaloniki. Relatively speaking, consider what a similar shrinkage would mean for other countries:

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What’s more, once demographic decline sets in, it is very hard to reverse. Indeed, the European Commission reckons that the Greek population will shrink by a fifth over the next 40 years. That far in the future, it’s hard to say whether things will actually turn out better or worse in the end.

But one thing is for certain: the Greeks that are left will still be saddled with the debts accrued today—currently, Greece’s final bailout loan repayment is due in 2057.