Indefinitely Deferred: Dignified Retirement Inaccessible to Most
Inside a car repair shop in Bourj Hammoud, Avedis Demirjian, 76, turns to catch just the right angle of the dim winter sunlight filtering through the open door. With no electricity, sunlight is the only way he can see his trembling hands, as they try to push a small screwdriver into a gearbox, again and again.
“If I had the chance, I would love to stop working and rest,” he says, cleaning his hands with the cloth he uses to wipe down the machine. He lowers himself slowly onto a white plastic chair, holding on to its sides. “My legs can’t carry me anymore,” he says, his voice breaking as he lights a long cigarette. “I need a chair now to work because I can't stand for too long.”
Demirjian has been working as a full-time mechanic for over 65 years, from the time he was only eight or nine; he can’t remember the exact date. His father died when he was three years old. Having to support his mother and siblings, he never attended school. He had no choice but to work.
Now, even as it gets harder, he still sees work as his only option.
Demirjian is not alone. Since the financial crisis, an increasing number of seniors have had to keep working — some even coming out of retirement, says Maya Abi Chahine, an expert on aging and public policy who runs the University for Seniors, a life-long learning initiative at the American University of Beirut for people aged 50 and above.
“For those who can and want to work, it is totally okay. The problem lies when the person is forced to work because the government is not ensuring their protection and securing their incomes,” says Abi Chahine.
Because the Lebanese state does not provide the necessary assistance in old age, such as comprehensive retirement pensions or access to healthcare, it has long forced older adults to keep working.
Many in Lebanon worked well into older age even before the crisis. The labor force participation rate stood at 41 percent for men aged 65-69 and 29 percent of those aged 70-75 in 2018 — proportions the International Labor Organization (ILO) describes as “remarkable” and the highest in the Middle East and North Africa.
Because the Lebanese state does not provide the necessary assistance in old age, such as comprehensive retirement pensions or access to healthcare, it has long forced older adults to keep working — or else have to fall back on a patchwork of personal savings, familial support, and private charities.
The country’s economic collapse, one of the world’s most severe crises of the past century, has torn through the fabric of support that seniors relied on. Along with persons with disabilities, persons aged 65 and above are most vulnerable to income loss during the crisis.
For those who had access to retirement benefits, the devaluation of the Lebanese pound has obliterated the value of their pensions and indemnities, now insufficient to meet even basic needs.
The labor force participation rate stood at 41 percent for men aged 65-69 and 29 percent of those aged 70-75 in 2018, the highest in the Middle East and North Africa.
Those who had life savings are kept from them by Lebanon’s banking oligarchy. “The Lebanese state was so unethical and irresponsible in handling people’s money and lifetime savings,” says Farah al-Shami, a research fellow at the Arab Reform Initiative.
“When the financial crisis hit, the big depositors, who are not the elderly, smuggled their money outside the country. And the biggest share of the money left in the banks are for the elderly people that have made lifetime savings,” says al-Shami.
And those who depended on their adult children are witnessing them struggle to secure their own livelihoods, many forced to migrate to uncertain destinations.
All this as the cost of living skyrockets. With a ruling elite that deliberately refuses to take actions to ameliorate the crisis, inflation rates ballooned from 3 percent in 2019 to 211.43 percent in May 2022.
Forced to Work
For over 30 years, Maroun has been a public high school teacher. Close to turning 64, he has been looking forward to retirement but he knows he cannot afford it.
“Honestly? I’m tired of working,” Maroun says. “But practically, I cannot retire now. I have to work to be able to keep providing for my family.”
Because he works in the public sector, Maroun is one of the lucky ones — in theory.
When they reach retirement age, public sector employees — 16.1 percent of Lebanon’s workforce — have a choice other workers do not: They can receive a one-time, lump sum end-of-service indemnity, or they can receive a monthly pension for life.
But with the Lebanese pound losing more than 93 percent of its value, neither option is viable today. A paper by the Centre For Social Sciences Research and Action Social Science concludes that “pension schemes are insufficient to ensure a dignified life” for elderly workers retiring from the public sector.
“Say we were to pick up the pension, then call an electrician for a quick repair job. He would walk away with the full amount. All gone in one day.” —Maroun, 64-year-old public high school teacher
“What does the 200 million end of service indemnity do for us now? Nothing at all. It will run out immediately,” Maroun says. “Say we were to pick up the pension, then call an electrician for a quick repair job. He would walk away with the full amount. All gone in one day.”
In contrast, private sector employees — the vast majority of the workforce at 81 percent — can only receive an end-of-service indemnity, rarely sufficient beyond a few years.
For the 62.4 percent of workers in the informal sector, neither pensions nor indemnities are available to them.
At the same time, seniors are increasingly turning to informal labor, though it is especially taxing on their wellbeing. “These completely unstructured sectors do not have any sort of social protection, the pay is very low, and these are fields that require a lot of physical effort,” says Maya Abi Chahine.
“When people are rejoining the workforce, they are rejoining the informal sectors,” says Abi Chahine. “Now more than before, we see seniors driving cabs, working in agriculture, or even begging on the streets.”
Maroun also plans to enter the informal labor sector when he leaves his position as a public school teacher. He will turn to agricultural work on a small plot of land that hosts beehives and olive trees in his village in Chouf.
“I am thinking of expanding,” he says. “Maybe I will get more bees… not because I want to have fun, but because I need money.”
Strained Familial Support
Most older adults in Lebanon have historically relied on their adult children for economic support. According to a 2004 national survey, the incomes of Lebanese older adults were provided mainly by their children (74.8 percent), with a relatively small share derived from pension schemes.
But now, younger adults are also suffering, barely able to make ends meet, let alone secure their parents’ livelihoods.
“Those who can rely more on their children are the ones who have children living and working abroad and sending remittances. But we are also heading into a global crisis, so even the ones living abroad are under pressure,” says Abi Chahine.
“Those who can rely more on their children are the ones who have children living and working abroad and sending remittances. But we are also heading into a global crisis, so even the ones living abroad are under pressure.” —Maya Abi Chahine, aging and public policy expert
Remittances in Lebanon “substitute for private pension schemes, reduce poverty among older people, and enable residential independence,” according to a 2010 study. In 2021, remittances constituted 54 percent of Lebanon’s GDP, a sharp rise compared to 14.4 percent in 2019.
While migration of their children has helped some seniors, it can also be a burden, says al-Shami. “Some sent their children abroad to pursue their futures, which added to their financial burden because their children couldn’t make it over there, either because they are still pursuing their education or because they weren't lucky enough to find the right job opportunity that gives them enough income to support their family.”
Maroun, the public school teacher, says his children are married and have responsibilities of their own, so they cannot support him though they try.
“My children cannot help me much, they need someone to help them!” Demirjian exclaims. His two daughters are married and live in Lebanon, and his son lives in Qatar, but his income is not large enough to support others.
For many of Lebanon’s elderly, the economic crisis has not simply robbed them of their financial security or health. It has also torn them apart from children and grandchildren forced to migrate — an emotional loss that can be the hardest to bear.
Bassima Medawar will be 64 in a few months. She lives with her husband in Beirut and works in the small shop she inherited from her father, at the Starco Center in downtown beirut.
She almost never contemplates retirement. For one, she cannot afford to stop working. When her husband retired, she became their household's sole provider and she does not want to depend on her children. But she also finds that the work keeps her mind sharp and boredom at bay.
“We are deprived of our children and our grandchildren altogether. We don’t have the entity of a family anymore. We become only two old people living together and alone, waiting to die.” —Bassima Medawar, 64-year-old shop owner.
The only time she considers retirement, the only time she even forgets about work, is when she spends time with her grandchildren who live in Germany with their parents. “The only thing that would make me accept retirement and go to Germany are my grandchildren,” she says.
“There’s a completely different feeling when you are surrounded by your grandkids. We lost this in our lives here in Lebanon. We are deprived of our children and our grandchildren altogether. We don’t have the entity of a family anymore. We become only two old people living together and alone, waiting to die,” says Medawar.
In addition to the more-discussed problem of brain drain, mass migration from the financial crisis has also ruptured familial and intergenerational relationships.
“Seniors have experience, wisdom, energy and time, and they can contribute a lot to society,” says Maya Abi Chahine. “A [healthy] society needs all its generations ... to work and function together,” she explains.
A Broken Social Protection System
Karim, 70, sells homemade detergents from the roof of his car, which he parks on a corner of a busy Beirut street. He’s been there since 2005, and by now knows almost everyone in the area.
“We’re working so we don’t ask for help from anyone. But for each day of work, there are 10 without,” he tells The Public Source as he greets a passerby.
We ask him whether he and his wife have received any government support. He laughs. “The government? Do we even have one? It left 50 years ago and it never gave us anything since.”
Lebanon has always had a very limited and unequal social protection system, which the ILO defines as support to individuals in circumstances that make them less able to maintain wellbeing and an adequate standard of living, such as old age, maternity, illness, unemployment, or disability. In a crisis, social protection systems are crucial safety nets to alleviate loss of income and rapid inflation.
One in three Lebanese citizens and one in two non-Lebanese residents are completely excluded from any social protections. Gaps of coverage are also worse among the most impoverished; over 63 percent of people in the lowest income brackets are not covered, compared to just 6.5 percent of the richest.
For older populations specifically, social protection systems around the world usually include retirement pensions and health coverage. Yet Lebanon is the only state in the Middle East and North Africa without a pension system for retirees outside the public sector.
One in three Lebanese citizens and one in two non-Lebanese residents are completely excluded from any social protections.
Instead of a monthly pension, private sector employees affiliated to the National Social Security Fund (NSSF), Lebanon’s largest employment-based provider of social services, get a small lump sum payment known as an End-of-service Indemnity. These sums have always been woefully insufficient. Retirees would have had to contribute to the NSSF throughout their life, only to receive indemnities that would barely cover three years.
Now, due to the sharp devaluation of the local currency, what limited social protections exist are no longer able to cover basic necessities.
As for access to healthcare, over 40 percent of the Lebanese population was not covered by any type of health insurance in 2018.
Workers in Lebanon automatically lose their NSSF-provided health insurance when they retire — unless they re-sign up within three months of their last day of work and make monthly contributions.
But as of September 2021, almost all public hospitals and private hospitals are refusing third-party payments by public employees’ cooperatives and private sector employees’ NSSF schemes. Instead, hospitals withhold access to healthcare unless patients make large cash deposits.
Lebanon is the only state in the Middle East and North Africa without a pension system for retirees outside the public sector.
For Lebanon’s ruling elite, a non-reliable and opaque system of social protections allows them to be exclusive providers of social services and medicines through faith-based or politicized organizations, in exchange for votes.
Non-universal systems of social protection that create hierarchies of coverage are also known to exacerbate inequalities.
Moreover, they undermine solidarity, says Nabil Abdo, researcher and a senior policy advisor for Oxfam in the Middle East and North Africa. “When you place people under different regimes of protection, you immediately create different solidarities and types of remediations, while breaking solidarity between different groups of workers,” says Abdo. “As long as we think of universal social protection systems that create solidarity between people and are embedded in a socioeconomic vision based on redistribution, we’d be on good footing.”
Back to Work
Avedis Demirjian can spare us only a few more minutes of his time before he has to resume work.
“No one pays attention to us. Of course we can't stop working,” he says. “Our government only takes from us and gives us nothing in return.”
His hands still trembling, he puts his cigarette out and rises slowly from his chair, using it for support. “Before the crisis the financial situation was a lot better. Not only that, my health was better too,” he laments. As he walks back to the gearbox, stiffly, his voice fades: “May God grant me strength to keep working and never have to ask anyone for anything. May God ease our paths.”
Demirjian picks up his screwdriver and cloth and gets back to work.