For most of Greece's modern history, the average citizen's career dream has been a civil service job.
After all, state employees could bank on generous pay and benefits, less work than their private sector counterparts and -- above all -- enjoy constitutionally guaranteed jobs for life.
In the country's worst postwar crisis, the Socialist government is yielding to months of arm-twisting from international creditors, and has pledged to ax thousands of public sector jobs as part of a new austerity bill to be voted by parliament Thursday.
The plan, meant to save some euro300 million ($415 million), calls for about 30,000 civil servants to be placed in a "labor reserve," suspended on greatly reduced pay for up to two years.
The implications are far reaching in a country where one in five salaries are paid by the government.
Most will by then have reached retirement age and entitled to full pensions, and others will be shifted to other civil service jobs. But, under a constitutional loophole, up to 9,000 face joining the growing ranks of the unemployed that in July hit 820,000, or 16.5 percent of the work force. In comparison, public servants number about 780,000.
The layoffs will break a century-old taboo: Civil servants were granted lifelong job protection in 1911, because until then each newly elected government would organize extensive purges to appoint its own political supporters.
Tradition has it those newly fired workers would gather to bemoan their fate outside the interior ministry building, on a central Athens square that is still known as Klafthmonos -- the Wailing Square.
Most Greeks argue that political clientelism was never really stamped out, with successive administrations hiring their cronies, a process that just bloated the civil service as people hired by previous governments could be sidelined but not sacked.
"The party-dominated state is to blame for the ills of public administration," said Nikos Alexopoulos, an interior ministry employee and union leader with 18 years service in the public sector.
"You have civil servants who are backed by their local member of parliament, to whom they take their problems. The deputy then goes to a minister, who handles the matter. And this problem is perpetuated by all parties represented in parliament, not just those in government each time."
Stefanos Manos, a conservative finance minister in the early 1990s, described the government cuts as timid, dooming the country to default.
"I don't think our creditors should keep paying us loan installments," he told Skai television, "There is only one solution: take a knife to all unnecessary expenses ... It's unbelievable to say this, but after all these cuts, the government will still spend more money than it did last year."
Manos suggested firing more than 100,000 public servants in a three-year transition.
Powerful Greek unions, however, reject the planned labor reserve as irrational and arbitrary, arguing that it will weaken the civil service without addressing existing staff imbalances. They have launched a wave of protests that culminate with Wednesday and Thursday's rare 48-hour strike against the new cutback package, which is the harshest in nearly two years of forced austerity.
The Paris-based Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, in its latest report on Greece, noted that the public payroll grew rapidly over the past decade, with most civil servants enjoying higher wages and shorter working hours than their private sector peers. While it conceded that the government has cut wages and increased the work week, it urged an end to lifelong job security for newly hired employees.
Ilias Vrettakos, deputy chairman of the Adedy civil servants' union, argued that Greece has a smaller civil service than most other European Union members, and said only "isolated cases" of overstaffing existed in some departments while acute shortages exist elsewhere.
"But that is not what we are talking about here," he said.
"The government effectively wants to address the problem using cross-the-board cuts, irrespective of the needs of each department. You can see that from the logic of reduced pay for those nearing retirement: Everyone who falls under that category will go, irrespective of whether they work in understaffed departments."
"The government doesn't care whether their leaving will allow their departments to continue functioning properly," he added.
Even top government officials appear to lack full conviction in their plan.
"It is not so much the fiscal result as the need to provide proof that something is moving in public administration, that something is changing structurally, that the rules of the game are changing," Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos said.
"The labor reserve (measure) carries a very harsh sound -- and is indeed very harsh," Venizelos told Parliament. "You take people who have planned their lives, who were preparing to retire in a couple of years or are at the peak of their career ... and hurriedly tell them that they are being suspended on reduced pay ahead of retirement to help our state and society, to achieve our targets and boost our credibility."
Venizelos argued that the focus on workers up to two years from retirement and exceptions for single parents and handicapped workers will soften the blow. Clerics and diplomats will also be shielded, along with teachers, health workers, prison guards and firefighters.
Some 10,000 who work in departments that are being merged or abolished will be placed in reserve, with the prospect of being moved to other civil service jobs or given part-time employment.
Adedy's Vrettakos said he expected the majority will not be re-employed, as current hiring restrictions call for a one-to-ten ratio in the replacement of retirees.
"So there won't be any positions in other departments to be filled." he said. "From 2012 and on the civil service restructuring will continue ... although the government has not specified how many people this will concern. Obviously though, there will be more layoffs."