Greece’s Seniors Reveal The Harsh Truth About Nation’s Pension Crisis

"I am depriving myself of things so that I can give a present to my grandchildren."
Pensioners take part in a demonstration against the government in Athens, as cuts continue, on Jan. 19, 2016.
Pensioners take part in a demonstration against the government in Athens, as cuts continue, on Jan. 19, 2016.

On the verge of a drastic reform of the social security system, the Greek parliament is expected to vote this month on a new round of pension cuts. 

Greece is under massive pressure from its European creditors to slash its expenses and cut both pensions and supplementary benefits for seniors.

Pensions in Greece have been cut several times in recent years and the latest proposal has sparked massive protests over the last few weeks. 

HuffPost Greece spoke with eight retired Greeks across the country -- their stories show that for many Greeks, pensions constitute a fundamental element that keeps their lives from falling apart.

These senior citizens represent a wide range of professions and pensions, still, they all share a common frustration: the successive cuts to their basic income. While they are emotional and even angry they are also critical of the social security policies of Greece’s governments in the past years. 

Pensioners protest cuts in Athens on Nov. 26, 2015.
Pensioners protest cuts in Athens on Nov. 26, 2015.

Dimitris Birbas

Retired Major General, 58


My pension has been cut in half between 2009 and 2016 -- it’s about 1,400 euros net ($1,565) right now -- and that had major repercussions for my way of life. I have two daughters. We used to help one of them financially, until she got a job last year. The other one is still unemployed. If the crisis goes on, the cuts in salaries and pensions are going to continue. The best possibility is for things to settle, so that we can preserve at least a little of our living standards. If, as everything shows, new cuts come, we will continue to cut down on our expenses. Personally, I can't find a new job, I wish I could. I will have to cut down on food expenses from now on.

From scientists to farmers, Greek people are determined to act, but we have to find a way to go from saying “that's enough” to actually changing the situation. Historically, it was often the young that pioneered change.

I am not sad, but I feel a great deal of anger. The good years have passed for my generation. It doesn't matter so much if they cut my pension, the most important thing is to eradicate unemployment. There have to be new work possibilities. There are young people in their thirties who have never been insured. Where will they work? I doubt this generation will ever get a pension.

Pensioners and public servants are going to survive, even with the cuts. Those who will end up with serious problems are the young without jobs, or those unemployed who have to support children. The only solution for the Greek economy is to wipe out unemployment, otherwise, even if pensions don't get cut even further right now, it will happen really soon.


Vasilis Depastas

Retired Farmer, 82

Vasilis Depastas.
Vasilis Depastas.

They have put us through the meat grinder and squashed us. I used to get a pension of 510 euros ($569). Right after Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras got in power, it was reduced by another 20 euros ($22,30), so, now I get 488 euros ($543,70). My wife gets the same amount, while they slashed 100 euros ($111) from her child benefits -- we have nine children and 13 grandchildren. 

I think we will soon see elections again, but nothing will change. While we have been experiencing a downward spiral in the past few years, it has worsened in the past year. If things continue, there will only be old people left -- three million pensioners in an old people’s country. God knows who will feed them.

The social security system won’t make it without growth, because if the fund doesn't get money, how can it give? Even people with a job, how will they be able to save for their own social security fund?

I am really sad for the young people. They don't work, they don't have insurance and they will probably not even get a pension. Those who are from outside the city and own a piece of land might be able to survive. We have some animals and that allows us to send some meat or eggs to our children in the city. But how much longer will the old people be around to help the young? Those living in the city, those depending on their bosses, they will starve or depend on handouts.


Anna Depastas

Retired Farmer, 75

Anna Depastas.
Anna Depastas.

I am scared that at some point we will have to start looking through the trash to find something to eat, as is already the case for some people in Athens, from what I see on television. Young people are starving. Our children are having a difficult time, too. They are looking for jobs. So many young people end up either becoming waiters or going abroad. 

I am preparing for more cuts. They told us they might reduce our pensions to 350 euros ($390) -- that is if the fund can sustain even that. So I am sad and upset. I didn't vote for the Syriza party and I won't in the future either. They promised us a lot but they didn't tell us where they were going to get it. I don't trust anyone and I don't want to vote. 


Iraklis Nikoloudakis

Retired Teacher, 62

Iraklis Nikoloudaki. 
Iraklis Nikoloudaki. 

I retired seven months ago and I’m only receiving 70 percent of my main pension right now. The pension cuts didn’t surprise me. I’ve felt for a long time that the system needed reforms and that the longer it would take to implement them, the worse it would be. I am a mathematician and I know that numbers are relentless. It wasn’t sustainable for the country to spend 17 percent of its GDP on pensions.

The real question is not whether pensions will be cut, but rather whether they will continue to exist at all. It just doesn't add up. It’s also not fair for the new generation, because the new social security system is being founded on overtaxing the young. It is unacceptable that the young have to pay in order to keep our pensions.

Criminal mistakes have taken place in the past years, like early retirements and a general distorted situation. Hundreds of millions of the country's debt has ended up in the pensions and the funds have lost money because of mismanagement. But it's no use talking about the past. Painful measures are required if we want to keep getting a pension, otherwise I don't think we'll make it until this summer.

If the politicians explained to the people what's going on, or if they started the cuts from the top, I think Greeks would be more understanding. It's just not viable for a bankrupt country like ours to be handing out pensions of 2,500 euros ($2,785). In my opinion, the highest pension should be between 1,200 to 1,500 euros ($1,337 to $1,671).


Evangelia Nikoloudakis

Retired Public Servant, 63

Evangelia Nikoloudaki. 
Evangelia Nikoloudaki. 

I retired in 2011, and since then my pension allowance has never been the same. They always cut something, 20, 30 euros. It is less every month.

I adjusted and learned to live with less. I am depriving myself of things so that I can give a present to my grandchildren. Travels, leisure, it's all gone, everything is calculated now. We have to help our children. Even if they work, they can't make it on their own. How can their salaries cover the needs of a family?

I’m bitter and disappointed. Politicians -- the members of parliament, high-ranking people -- they should look at themselves before getting to us. Regular people cannot always pay the price. And I don't think the solution can be just cuts. They’ve imposed cuts all these years and there haven’t been any results. 

I am afraid that we will eventually end up with 500 euros without even realizing how we got there. Then it's going to be very tight, we won't even be able to buy our medication, let alone help our children. I am afraid that the life that awaits us will not be just “limited,” but will be akin to living in a country under occupation.


Giorgos Kostas

Retired Post Office Employee, 70

Giorgos Kostas.
Giorgos Kostas.

I was working for 35 years, and saw a lot of deductions to my pension. I started with a good pension, now I am close to 1,100 euros ($1,225). We still have to wait and see where it stops.

I have two children and five grandchildren. They live in Athens and they hardly get by, since they don't get paid for months, despite having jobs. What really bothers me is that I can't help them anymore. A few years ago I still could, but now I can't even get to Athens to see them.

I am not angry. I try to deal with my problems in a stoic manner, this is my philosophy, otherwise I couldn't survive. I am sad though, because despite another party coming into power, the course of the country doesn't seem to be able to change. I fear for more pension cuts and I don't see these amateurs in power being able to cope.

The only positive thing I see in the social insurance reform is that some population groups will have to pay their share. It’s not sustainable if only wage earners pay. Self-employed workers and farmers should contribute as well, each according to their potential. Despite disagreeing with the government on many things, on this particular issue I think they are right. 


Dimitris Lagos

Retired Garage Owner, 80

Dimitris Lagos. 
Dimitris Lagos. 

I was working for 42 years as a self-employed worker. I founded our garage 53 years ago, when I came as I was deported from Istanbul as a refugee, and it is now run by my son. During all those years I was working, I paid my contributions to the state’s social security funds, hoping to get a good pension.

I have seen my pension cut by all of the previous governments. I went from 1,700 euros a month to 1,180 ($1,894 to $1,314.)

I blame all of the governments, the previous one as well as this one. The Syriza party promised us a lot but didn't cut down on taxes. Now they tell us our pensions will be slashed. We don't know what will happen eventually -- people are so fed up, they curse their fate.

I have two children and three grandchildren. We help them as much as we can because their salaries have been cut, too, while their responsibilities keep increasing. 

What happens to those who get less than me and have to pay rent as well? Don't they deserve to eat? Have they worked for no reason at all in the past years? For nothing?

There’s a gentleman in my neighborhood who’s the same age as me. He pays the rent and helps his two unemployed children from what's left of his pension. There are people living off church hand-outs. Sometimes I think we should get back to the drachma to restart the economy.


Stavros Toubakaris

Retired Navy Captain, 72

Stavros Toubakaris. 
Stavros Toubakaris. 

I’ve been working since I was 12 years old. I attended night school. I went to work at sea when I was 18 and retired at 62.

While I left with, 2,500 euros (2,785 dollars), nearly a full pension, I now receive 1,520 euros ($1,693), counting in the supplementary pension fund.

I have two daughters who are self-sufficient, they manage just fine and only need a little help from me. My pension goes towards paying taxes and bills. I only have some money left for gas and a newspaper.

When the government first imposed capital controls last year, the pensioners waiting for their money outside the banks looked like beggars. I am not voting for the right but if Samaras, the previous prime minister, had passed these measures, Athens would have burned. Europeans and the [International Monetary Fund] knew that Tsipras would be able to pass them.

The future? Whoever receives 750 euros ($835) will be a rich Greek. The new generation will never get a pension. It is very frustrating -- if some politicians had been punished a long time ago we wouldn't have gotten into this mess. But perhaps this generation will start a proper revolution and change this state.

This story originally appeared on HuffPost Greece. It was translated into English and edited for clarity. 

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