Thursday, August 14, 2014

Greece - No Country for Old(er) Men?

"If they don't have a job and they have to wait so long for a pension, what are they doing in the meantime? They are at serious risk of poverty!"

This is what a senior economist at the OECD pointed out about Greece's 'older men' (say above 50) in this WSJ article. And a Greek psychiatrist added that, 'in Greece, with its macho, traditional culture, unemployed men are at risk of depression, alcoholism and domestic violence'.

That probably is not all that different from 'older men' in similar situations in well developed and rich welfare states like Germany or Austria. The difference is probably that in countries like Germany or Austria, 'older men' do not lose their jobs as quickly as they did in Greece's depression and, above all, they are not as many as in Greece. Also, the state offers more than only unemployment benefits: there are things like re-training programs, etc. And, of course, there are early retirement schemes.

Still, if 'older men' lose their jobs in Germany or Austria, they are going through similar miseries as described above, financially and emotionally. Financially, because their house may not yet be paid off and their children may still be in education while the income is now down to a fraction of what it was before. Emotionally, because they still feel in full physical and mental strength while reality tells them they have become useless (if not worthless). I can tell because I lost my senior management job at the age of 52 due to a corporate restructuring. The fact that I could find an even better job within 6 months, I attribute to the luck of having been the right person in the right place at the right time. Without that luck, things would have been tough. Those 6 months were not pleasant months!

As the article suggests, Greece's 'older men' are unlikely to get the problem behind them within 6 months. Instead, they are likely to never work again. One of my neighbors in Thessaloniki and very good friend is a case in point.

He is an architect by profession and spent his entire career with one employer doing interior designs for the household appliances which they sold (kitchens, bathrooms, etc.). He lost his job at age 57 due to the crisis. This is how he explains his frustration: "What did I do wrong? I always thought I had done everything right in life. I was a very dedicated, committed and hard-working employee for my employer. I was always loyal to my employer. I did not partake in any Euro-party. Instead, I lived a very responsible life and supported my family. I have no debts. And now I am getting punished!"

An outplacement specialist would probably tell my friend that he is seeing things too negatively out of the moment. That, instead, he should be thinking about all the unique strengths and capabilities he has and that, eventually, these strengths and capabilities would lead to a future far better than the past. That he should see this phase not as a punishment but as an opportunity to start a new and better life, instead.

Well, I might use that trick on an enemy but I could not talk to my friend like that for the simple reason that, for all practical purposes, it would be a lie. There is literally no hope for him to ever find another employment suiting his strengths and capabilities again. I think he doesn't even receive unemployment insurance. He says he is now 1-1/2 years away from his pension but he is worried that he might not get the pension in the full amount because, he says, the Bank of Greece speculated some pension money away.

And in the meantime? Well, it's not the end of the world just yet. There is some real estate which he inherited and his wife inherited real estate as well. Not a huge fortune but something. There are obviously savings at the bank. And then he is being asked by previous customers, once every so often, to do a 'private job' for them. Interestingly, he tells me that even though he has no official income, he still has to pay income taxes. Since he owns their apartment as well as a car, he is deemed to have a certain amount of income. Well, that's got to be a Greek specialty! In all the 7 countries which I lived in, one paid income taxes on income which one had (and not on income which one was deemed to have but did not have).

It's good that some good news are popping up about Greece here or there these days but when one looks into the details of the situation, many, many Greeks have a miserable future ahead of them.

1 comment:

  1. So true, I am 51 when after a corporate merger (worked in banking) I was left unemployed and still am, 8 months later. I agree, you need to be lucky enough to have the right skills at the right time when a company needs it so you may find a job again. I would also add another point; one needs to be active too..expand its area of search; in the EU employment can happen anywhere without much bureaucracy. This is where I am currently searching and I am quite optimistic. Difficulties are part of life, but they are also a chance for a change and change can be good!