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Petty Pensions

A youthful analysis of retirement

Text: Kyriaki Mallioglou

Image: Masja Willekens

The cash register dings as I stare through the window of the store; I’m at my prime, or so I’m told. I know that I’ll have to work a lot, while in my prime, to ensure I end up where I want to. What I imagine through that window is a future of margaritas, the sand under my feet and a house in the middle of nowhere. The permanent vacation I’ve craved since the moment I turned 15: retirement.

This longing for retirement is, surprisingly, shared by most of my young friends. People who are either sure they are going to get said retirement, and others who aren’t so optimistic. Moving to the Netherlands from Southeastern Europe, opened up a different world-view for me. One that didn’t involve half-joking about the fact that I will most probably never see a pension check, or perhaps, more importantly, have my margarita in the sun. In fact, people I brought this up to here, looked at me in confusion, never having thought of their pensions in their brief 20 year life-span.

Before I jump into morally solving the issue, a couple of theoretical notions must be covered. Government pension consists of employees and employers paying the government with the promise that one day, the worker will receive this payment back in pension. This more or less happens as a redistribution of the payments based on your salary when you were working. Private pension is simpler in the way that ‘What You Pay Is What You Get’, or at least a percentage of it. This is great for people with high salaries, but amounts to almost nothing for the lower salaries. Which is why the government plan is more social at its base, if it is implemented correctly. These arrangements may not mean much for countries such as the Netherlands, Sweden or Denmark, all of which have solid pension plans in place for their populations. But in many other European countries, the idea of a reliable retirement is more and more at risk.

Petty Problems and Petty Solutions

Worldwide the elderly population is not only growing, but also getting older. According to Greek Reporter, Greece is about to pass Italy in ‘highest number of elders’, and become the oldest population in Europe. In addition to this, there are simply less people being born who will, in turn, be raised into the workforce. This workforce is what sustains the retired populace and what brings stability into our economies. Other than the ageing population, there is the matter of who pays the retired folks and who collects the funds for this. Insurance firms are a private collector of pensions and in European society today, if business isn’t faring too well, they can declare bankruptcy. In this case, the workers are still paid by the government, which hasn’t been receiving the payments form the worker. Here comes the tricky bit though, which is also why so many Southern Europeans suffer: governments can’t always pay the pensions.

Pensions that cannot be paid in full are usually lowered massively in countries like Greece, Spain and Italy. Either that, or higher taxes are implemented, which in turn strains the working population. New plans of pension assurance have been talked about and voted on recently in the Greek Senate. However, as quickly as this plan was presented, it came under fire by Greece’s far-left political party. These opposing leaders called the changes a band-aid solution that just puts more money into insurance firm hands. Most strikingly, they point out how unjust and far-removed the plans really are, since the backdrop that Greece was living in at the time was their fourth wave of the coronavirus and had much more pertinent issues to be working through than making shaky plans 40 years in advance.

Petty Illusions and Petty Realities

What I personally take away from these plans is that there is a disconnect between the public and political spheres that continues to plague young people’s dreams. Twenty year olds should not be struggling to choose between making money and following their passions. A career that guarantees a solid pension is often way more appealing than the alternative: the sometimes creative and fulfilling professions. Some of the worst parts about these decisions are that we don’t even realise that we are ignoring our talents and fascinations since they happen so early on. Something that is easily realised by the youth of Southeastern European countries quite early, is that structures cannot be trusted in the long-term. This is seen in the way our grandparents budget and rely on savings, while our parents work years past the retirement age in order to make up for increasing expenses. I am not writing out of self-pity for failed systems, or out of admiration for systems that seem to be working. I am simply writing to bridge the gap that I have identified between the respective youths of Central and Southeastern Europe. Perhaps also to shed some light on a different world-view, just like was done for me by friends who have never even thought about their retirement plans.

The reality of the situation is that there is no interest for high-ranking people to change these social injustices. Corruption in the government, shady use of taxes, and lack of integration for illegal workers is what keeps all of Europe from pension stability. Until we address the opaqueness of some governments in the EU, and hold them accountable for fluctuating pension funds that hurt both retirees and the active workforce, we will not have a healthy stability in our future. The illegal workforce is not a short term issue. The taxation that is applied to legal workers is not only there to fill in the gaps for what government funds lack, but also to promise a future. There needs to be a restructuring of how we view and integrate illegal employees; the long-term strain that this will place on the already overloaded systems of Southern Europe might be irreparable by the time I get to retirement age.

Petty Endings & Petty Beginnings

People in Central Europe may laugh at this article and dismiss it as a far-away problem for far-away people. But something that seems small from here, might be inching closer year in, year out. The amount of people moving around Europe for studies and work alike is at an all-time high and will most probably gain even more participants as travel becomes easier once again. The reality for most citizens of the world is that there is no trust in leadership. Once this hurt and shared consciousness starts to seep into other economies, I am interested to see how this may impact things that seem insignificant to the present, like retirement. Some ways to reach that sun-kissed beach, stem from stopping corruption in the political sphere, integrating illegal workers into legal workspace and creating a transparency of funds collected and used by the government. I sure would like to see my grandma get the pension she deserves. A jobless, ‘voiceless’ young person like myself can only do so much but bring awareness to these intangible far-looking problems before it is too late.

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