By Jeremy Gaunt
IRAKLIO, Greece (Reuters) - Sitting in a funky cafe in Crete's capital, three students were pondering their future, and it was not altogether good news for their economically struggling country. Maybe they would leave.
Amid the pounding pop music and clicking of backgammon chips, the three 20-year olds from TEI of Crete, a technical institute, looked like students from anywhere in Europe.
One had an earring, another a baseball cap. There was talk of getting tatoos.
But this is Greece, a land with 42.5 percent unemployment between the age of 15 to 24, where more substantial issues loom large.
Smiling and still with some of the natural bloom of youth, they saw little prospect for success when they graduated in a Greece sinking under huge debt and harsh austerity.
"You can't actually fulfil a dream," said William Kotronakis, a business administration major planning to switch to computing.
There were already some thoughts about leaving for abroad from the group gathered on a hot day near Iraklio's famous Lions Square with its Venetian fountain.
"Working in England, I guess," said Oliver Starakis, an Anglo-Greek, when asked where he saw himself in five years.
"There are little chances of getting a job. At the moment, everyone is better (off) than Greece," the business administration major said.
His friend Dimitris Gaitanis, studying mechanics, was a little less certain, but still fairly resigned to moving abroad in search of work.
"If this (a job in Greece) doesn't happen, somewhere in Europe," he said in answer to the same question.
Of the three, only Kotronakis reckoned he would be in Greece.
"I am forced to stay in Greece. In Irakio," he said, suggesting that monetary issues would keep him at home.
Greeks have a long tradition of emigrating to find work. Cities as far apart as Chicago in the United States, Cape Town in South Africa and Melbourne in Australia have large Greek communities.
The problem is that when a country's educated elite leaves, they have effectively been trained by one economy only to pay it back to another. Greece is already suffering from something of a brain drain.
Finding work in Greece is very tough, even beyond the eyewatering youth unemployment figure.
The overall unemployment rate has shot up to 16.2 percent from 6.5 percent in May 2008 and many of those who are in work fear for their job security.
And this does not look like turning around significantly any time soon.
The economy is forecast by the new finance minister to contract by 3.9 percent this year and next year's projection for growth has been cut by the European Commission to just 0.6 percent from 1.1 percent.
Even getting a business of your own up and running faces massive hurdles.
"To start a new business is fairly easy," said Starakis, the business major. "But to make it run is almost impossible."
The students said even temporary summer jobs in Crete's busy tourist industry, enjoying some growth this year, were hard to find.
Gaitanis said he was looking for a job as a waiter that would pay him around 700 euros a month, but that the big hotels along the sun drenched beaches were bringing in Russians, Poles and Ukrainians who would work for around 300 euros, which would be well below Greece's minimum wage.
Greeks have also complained in the past about immigrants such as Albanians taking plumbing work and the like, but many Albanians have left because prospects are so poor.
Greece's economic decline has crushed businesses, destroying jobs in its wake.
Greek construction employment, for example, was around 400,00 in late 2007-early 2008. In May it was down to around 270,000.
GRANDCHILDREN TO PAY
Despite the lack of short- and long-term prospects, the three students appeared very level-headed about the situation in Greece -- which is reliant on aid from abroad to pay debt, faces heavy opposition from within to austerity and remains structurally uncompetitive.
They said many people their age did not understand how the political and financial system worked but that they understood the scale of the problem and did not expect any quick fixes.
"There are some people who destroyed the country, frankly," said Gaitanis. "My grandchildren will still pay ... for their mistakes."
Greeks widely blame decades of mismanagement and corruption by both major political parties, PASOK and New Democracy, for their current state.
Students in Athens have been among the most vociferous in protesting against government austerity plans.
But the Iraklio students believe that it will take more than one generation to turn things around.
"Our generation is not to make the future good, but to make it a bit better," Starakis said.
Kotronakis, meanwhile, suggested that the decline in Greece's prospects from being proud new euro zone member and Olympics host to economic basket case and financial market pariah in a decade had taken a toll on his contemporaries.
"It has an impact on almost everybody, except maybe a high-class (type) who has everything at his disposal."
But students are still students, so although the future looked gloomy to three young men, a youthful cheerfulness prevailed.
"Why should I be sad about it?" Kotronakis said, effectively pushing all away because it was too depressing.
He and his friends then said goodbye and headed for the beach.
This was Greece, after all. And summer. And they were students.