Soon they will all be gone, those in Bulgaria that I think of as the Lost Generation. For the sake of argument, let’s say that these are Bulgarians born in the 1930s as both my in-laws, now gone, were. Born after the cataclysms of the First World War and both Balkan Wars, they were children during Tzar Boris’s royal dictatorship preceding World War II and the fascist-friendly government during that war. They reached the age of majority in the early Stalinist years of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria and fully inculcated with the carrots and sticks Communist rule used to maintain power. Promises were made to them.
Promises of stability, promises of education for the children, of apartments with running water and toilets, of employment. Promises of paid vacations, vaccinations for the children, of subsidized transportation, of retirement (at age 55 for women and 60 for men) with pensions well deserved for a lifetime of serving the nation as it moved along the historically inevitable path to full Communism. It was perhaps a deal with the devil, but it was truly the devil they knew and the deal had just enough in it that—occasional purges and ever-present restrictions aside—it was worthwhile keeping any doubts to oneself and voting to keep it all going, particularly as voting for the Party list was compulsory. Retirement to the village or cottage in the provinces, tending one’s garden, and buying treats for the grandchildren with the promised pension would be a better life than their parents ever had. The middle class and the classic Communist bogeyman “bourgeoisie” did not feel the gains proffered outstripped the losses, but their numbers were small relative to the peasantry to which my in-laws belonged.
So, a new generation arose, if not exactly Communist members as envisioned by the leadership at least sufficiently compliant in a Communist dictatorship. Not the best of all possible worlds as incessantly assured, but better enough—if only just—as promised.
But then came 1989 and the Promise Keepers fell from their perch. When the Berlin Wall fell, so did the pseudo-economy the Wall had leaned hard against to prop up and keep vertical. What happens when all the social influences and all the pervasive messages stop? What happens when all the beliefs and behaviors that have been carefully cultivated and practiced one’s whole life are no longer desirable? “Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man,” said Aristotle. At 56 and 51, my in-laws were not only well past seven years old but nearing their pension years. My father-in-law passed away only three years later, but my mother-in-law lived until 2013.
Despite limited education and 51 years of experience that prepared her for an entirely different life, she managed to adapt to her new world and to enjoy it tremendously. But she was the exception that proved the rule. With a son and daughter-in-law living in the United States, she established residency in the U.S. She worked as a nanny even with her minimal English ability, earned her own money, saved, and lived in our house while maintaining a largely independent life. Her new world was a continent and ocean away from her old. Living mostly here, she was able to designate her tiny Bulgarian pension for the utilities in the Sofia family apartment where my brother-in-law continued to live.
Most pensioners, however, struggle. Few pensioners in few countries feel that their monthly check is sufficient and Bulgaria itself is home to a fair number of British pensioners living there precisely because their UK pensions buy more than back home. At least one UK retirement planning company advises clients of precisely this strategy.
But for a Bulgarian receiving a Bulgarian pension, the situation is far more fraught. To cover the basic costs of food, medical care, and utilities is not possible for many. And even that presumes that one’s house or apartment is fully paid for and never needs the slightest repair, to say nothing of needing a new pair of shoes or winter coat.
Those that wish to increase their income by working longer will find it almost impossible. Employment for older people trained for jobs that may no longer exist in a world that they could not have foreseen is unlikely. To increase the stability of a pension system weighted down by too many recipients and too few contributors, the full retirement age has been inching up for years. By 2024, men will receive a pension at age 65 and women at age 63. And while less than 3% of pensions will benefit from the proposed pension ceiling increase next summer to 1200 leva, almost 40% are receiving the pension basement of 200 leva—100 euros—per month. Even were Bulgaria a model citizen of good governance, it is difficult to see how today’s open economy can fulfill the promises made yesterday by a closed, subsidized, centralized one that controlled all prices.
One’s pension is supposed to correlate in some calculable way to the employment sustained and salary earned over one’s lifetime. But the work was done in one world and the pension received in entirely another, and the calculations lost meaning and value. One’s life satisfaction and meaning in retirement is supposed to correlate in some calculable way to the life led before. But this calculation in fact has led to a contradictory product. Nearly everything a member of Bulgaria’s Lost Generation observes today is logically the opposite of all s/he held dear—or at least held to be conforming to reality in the People’s Republic of Bulgaria—throughout life. The low pension may be insignificant in filling material needs, but that is only one measure of deprivation. For people born in the 1930s, the collapse of the 45-year old Communist system caused an existential crisis of self-worth and loss. What is the significance of a life spent in a dead and repudiated system?