Four years ago, Sotiria and Vangeli, a couple in their mid-60s, helped their son pack up his possessions and move out of the family apartment in Kypseli, a middle-class Athens neighborhood.
“He changed jobs, he got married and started a family. We thought our role as parents was pretty much over,” says Sotiria, a retired local government worker. “Then the crisis started and we had to help out.”
So now the couple’s apartment, filled with mementoes of trips abroad and silver-framed family photos, is strewn with a toddler’s toys.
“Our son and his wife both lost their jobs, so they came to live with us. Our two small pensions support all five of us,” says Vangeli, who closed his vehicle repair business when he retired.
For some, having a family member with a pension has become a financial lifeline.
“The way things are, neither of us are likely to work again,” says Aspasia. “We have a comfortable spare room and plenty of time on our hands – and my mother’s pension gives us a secure regular income.”
Greece’s deepening recession, now in its fifth year, cuts across the generations, forcing families to fall back on their own resources. But these are fast diminishing following cuts of 15-30 per cent in wages and pensions, leading to a steady erosion of household savings.
Greece’s latest austerity package, due to be approved by parliament on Sunday, calls for further pension cuts of at least 10 per cent, although pensions below €1,000 a month are not likely to be affected. For several days this week, the pensions issue deadlocked negotiations in Athens over the cuts demanded by international lenders.
The social safety net is already strained, with official unemployment at 21 per cent and benefits available only for a 12-month period. A streamlining of the healthcare system launched last year means that state clinics now charge for medicines that used to be free.
During Greece’s boom years, the government doubled social spending to about 25 per cent of national output, but higher-paid workers – civil servants, university teachers and the judiciary – saw the biggest increase in pensions and allowances.
“The system was stacked in favour of people at the top and there was a considerable amount of wasteful spending,” said Yannis Stournaras, director of Iobe, an Athens think-tank.
“We are now seeing the consequences – a growing percentage of the population having to get by on an income of €600 a month,” he says.
Many pensioners themselves find it hard to make ends meet as prices have risen steadily during the crisis. Contrary to forecasts of rapid deflation as the economy contracts, inflation has persisted at about 2-3 per cent annually. Several sharp increase in taxes on heating fuel, imposed as the government tries to meet revenue targets, have added to the problems.
Andreas, a retired metalworker in his late 70s, finds it difficult to pay household bills since his wife died last year.
“It’s very hard to manage on only one pension,” he says. “I swallowed my pride a few weeks ago and started going to a church soup kitchen for a midday meal.”
He spends much of the day in a neighbourhood café with other retirees, playing backgammon and reading shared newspapers.
“It’s not just for company – my apartment is chilly because everyone who lives in the building agreed that we couldn’t afford to buy fuel this winter.”
Yet, like regulars in the café, Andreas says that things could be much worse, compared, for example, with his childhood in Athens during the second world war, “when I used to see people lying dead of starvation in the streets”. Afterwards his father went to work in Germany, and the family relied on the money he sent home.
For the young unemployed, facing a bleak future with an official jobless rate of 48 per cent, the resilience of the elderly is a quality to be envied.
Amalia, in her early 30s, who has two economics degrees from UK universities but works part-time as a book-keeper after failing to find a job with a bank, said the crisis had increased her respect for the older generation.
“Our grandparents grew up in poverty and endured a lot of hardship,” she says. “It is ironic, but they’re probably better at coping than we are.”