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“I’ve Spent Five Years at the Cemetery:” Coping Strategies of Pensioners in Romania in the Post-Socialist Era

0 Comments 🕔16.Sep 2015

This article is part of our feature People, Power, Policy.

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Photo credit: irish-adam.


by Gerard A. Weber

“I’ve spent five years at the cemetery,” Doina disclosed during an interview I had with her in 2004. She was a retired cook in her seventies whom I had met by chance during a visit one day that year to one of several cemeteries in Galaţi, Romania. What she meant was not that she was regularly going to visit the gravesite of a loved one. Instead, she headed there frequently, especially on weekends and holidays, when many people came to honor the deceased, primarily to take advantage of the distribution of pomană. Pomană are goods (most often food and drink, but sometimes also clothing and other material items) that people offer at burial grounds and churches as a means of satisfying or appeasing the soul of a family member or friend who has passed away. People accept the offerings for many reasons, including their religious significance, but in Doina’s case and in those of a number of other retired people I encountered, it was predominantly need that drove them to the cemetery. Their minuscule pensions despite years of work made it critical for them to supplement their income in some way. Availing themselves of pomană was one strategy. That year, for example, Doina earned 1.5 million lei (or approximately US$50) per month, making it impossible for her to sustain herself and her family. She, like other pensioners, therefore sought out pomană on a recurrent basis. During research trips I made to Galaţi in subsequent years (2005, 2006, and 2009), I discovered that Doina continued to go to the cemetery. The goods she accumulated ameliorated the impact of dramatic cuts to the social safety net and changes to the employment landscape as a result of neo-liberal policies, economic instability, and high-level corruption since the 1989 revolution that ended the socialist regime.

This paper examines responses that retired, working-class people like Doina have had to the social and economic transformation of Romania over the past quarter century. My insights are based upon approximately 18 months of anthropological research utilizing participant-observation and interviewing in Romanian from 2004 to 2011 in Galaţi, a city of an estimated 232,000 inhabitants[1] in the eastern region of Moldavia. Retirees have dealt with the material poverty and social dissolution flowing from policy initiatives, economic volatility, and corruption through many, often creative, strategies. Those tactics have not, however, been without their adversities; at times they aggravate the stress with which many older people in Romania live today. Furthermore, they at best only mildly buffer the elderly from the harsh conditions surrounding them.

Neo-liberal capitalist policies in Romania since 1989 have contributed to the reduction or entire elimination of access to health-care services, education, housing, and a range of entitlements, including unemployment insurance, disability benefits, pensions, and maternity leave. They have also curtailed the availability of gainful employment, the public sector having been targeted for deep cuts. These changes have been relatively gradual, but over the long term Romania has followed a pattern akin to those in many other capitalist societies since the 1970s, which various scholars have examined.[2] For example, while in 1949 socialist leaders enacted policies that created pensions for many employed people for the first time in history,[3] we have witnessed the dissipation of retirement income since the revolution. This has in part been the result of a failure of government policy involving Romania’s beleaguered pay-as-you-go public pension system, but it also stems from the broader uncertainty propagated by the integration of the country into the global, capitalist economy on very shaky grounds.

Retired men and women have been the focus of my research for a number of reasons. A prominent one is that pensioners have been among the most disadvantaged social sectors since 1989. I had my first glimpses of this while teaching in Romania in the 1990s. It was commonplace to encounter elderly men and women on the streets of Bucharest appealing to passersby with icons and handwritten signs for assistance in purchasing medications and meeting other basic needs. The hardship has persisted for many older people throughout the time that I have conducted research. Exacerbating the threat posed by derisory pensions, and at times rampant inflation, has been the fact that it is often difficult, or impossible, for kin of older people to provide support because of massive shifts in the labor market. Unemployment has been widespread in many regions; the informal sector has expanded significantly, offering work that is often poorly compensated and lacks benefits; and labor migration has become necessary for many working-age people, although it, too, does not always ease the financial strain with which they suffer. And even those living abroad who earn salaries that make it possible for them to send remittances home are still separated from their older relatives.

I have concentrated my research on the lives of pensioners also because of the demographics of this population sector. As is the case throughout much of Europe, the number of people 65 and older has been growing in Romania over the past several decades, a trend that is projected to continue for some time.[4] This increase makes retirees an important political constituency, affording them the opportunity to play a significant role in the consolidation of democracy or in the movement of Romania in other directions politically. It is also fiscally imperative, since more and more resources will be needed in the long term to support pensioners. Understanding the conditions in which older people live, and responses they have to changes affecting them, is therefore especially crucial now.

Old man in Bucharest, Romania. Photo credit: Jake Stimpson.

Old man in Bucharest, Romania. Photo credit: Jake Stimpson.

Galaţi is an apt location for learning about the impact of neo-liberal policy on working-class retirees. The city grew enormously under socialism because industrial facilities – most strikingly, a colossal steel manufacturing plant – were built there as part of a wider effort by communist leaders to transform Romania’s agrarian economy. Thousands ultimately migrated to the city for work from nearby villages, becoming members of the working class. As a result, by the revolution the population had reached an unprecedented height of approximately 325,000,[5] or four times that of the immediate post-War years. The economic prowess represented by this has been dashed in the post-socialist era. Policy often stoked by international financial institutions has led to the once state-owned factories ceasing operations or being privatized and restructured. Large numbers of people have been laid off with inadequate severance packages and few, if any, prospects for a secure future in Galaţi. They have therefore relocated for work, resulting in a population reduction of one third over this period. Left behind has been a large contingent of retirees from the steel plant and other facilities.

Responses by retirees to policy changes, the broader economic decline, and social fragmentation have been wide-ranging. Some have organized social movements to awaken leaders to their plight. We saw this in 2010, when retired people rallied both locally and nationally to protest austerity measures – including a 15 percent reduction in most pensions – that were under consideration. Those plans were prompted by the abrupt economic slowdown that had begun in late 2008, impelling political authorities to call upon the European Union and other institutions for loans, which came with stipulations to reduce the public sector. In the end, the demonstrations were partly victorious, as the Constitutional Court concluded that the 15 percent reduction was illegal. Another recent example of opposition by retirees to specific policies occurred in early 2012. The grievance on that occasion was the passage of a bill to privatize part of the health-care system. Raed Arafat, a popular deputy health minister, resigned from his post in protest, which enraged pensioners and many others. Their response was so intense that the government withdrew the policy from implementation.[6] On these occasions the galvanization of retirees appeared effective at bringing about desired change, even if they only pushed aside disfavored policies, rather than generated improved ones.

However, the retirees I have come to know in Galaţi – a total of about 70 women and men – for the most part have not participated in such activism. Some have been willing to share their motivations for keeping their distance. Two of the women who gathered pomană at the cemetery, including Doina, did not join demonstrations in Galaţi in 2006 aimed at raising awareness of pensioners’ poverty because they felt they were “in vain.” This interpretation corresponded with the contention occasionally expressed by retirees that “today you can say all you want [about the regime], but nobody will listen to you.” Others stayed away due to infirmity or the concern that speaking out could in fact get one in trouble.

To many pensioners, coping, rather than fighting against specific policy changes, has been a much more worthwhile response to their marginalization. This has in part been because retirees have often experienced tangible, positive results from their endeavors, even if only limitedly. I have written about the informal work that numerous retirees have taken up in order to augment their pensions.[7] Such activity has certainly not been without its shortcomings, including the physical demands it can place upon pensioners already suffering from various ailments. But it also can have its rewards, such as contributing income desperately needed for essentials. Doina, meanwhile, has hardly been alone in tapping into pomană for sustenance, even if it too has hardly been a fully satisfactory undertaking. She complained about other pensioners stealing her goods, and she was anxious about being tossed out of the cemetery by the police.

Yet another major coping mechanism has been to capitalize on material and social resources available from local organizations committed to supporting the retired population of Galaţi. I learned much about this by launching my research at a foundation with precisely such goals. Monthly, it offered packets of food to retirees who qualified on the basis of their income. Although small, they were not insignificant, and therefore many people lined up to obtain a packet even when the weather was very inclement. But it was not strictly the food packets that drew some retirees to the foundation. It also had a recreational center where people could form new social connections to guard against the splintering of kin relations noted earlier. Indeed, these social ties were not without their occasional disruptions and frailties. Not everyone felt warmly about other visitors, some outwardly complaining that a few people deliberately lied to foundation administrators about their income so as not to jeopardize their access to the food packets. Yet overall the place provided retirees the opportunity to meet others living through similar circumstances, and thereby to at least cushion the impact of the transformation of social and economic conditions on themselves.

There are other coping strategies I have observed among older men and women, such as pawning heirlooms, attempting to sell antiques, and complaining to authorities. My overall point is that in the aggregate these activities over the post-socialist period have served as antidotes to the rupture generated by Romania’s transformation from socialism to neo-liberal capitalism. This profound shift has been manifest on many fronts, including in policy initiatives, alterations to the work lives of people, rampant corruption, and a stark rise in stratification. While it is true that the coping reveals the resilience of people in the wake of major change, perhaps a more important lesson is how much needs to be accomplished in order to improve the lives of working-class retirees.


Gerard A. Weber is an Associate Professor in the Department of Social Sciences at Bronx Community College of the City University of New York.  He completed his doctorate in 2009 in Anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.  He has conducted research in Moldavia, Romania since 2004, learning about the lives of working-class retirees and their families.


This article is part of our feature People, Power, Policy.

[1] This figure comes from the undated “Rezultate definitive ale Recensământului Populaţiei şi Locuinţelor – 2011,” published by Institutul Naţional de Statistică.

[2] David Harvey provides a valuable summary of the shift from Fordist to neo-liberal capitalism in his 2005 A Brief History of Neoliberalism.

[3] Sanda Ghimpu, Alexandru Ţiclea, and Constantin Tufan discuss this history in their 1998 Dreptul securităţii sociale.

[4] Mukesh Chawla, Gordon Betcherman, and Arup Banerji present statistics on this trend in their 2007 From Red to Gray: The ‘Third Transition’ of Aging Populations in Eastern Europe and The Former Soviet Union.

[5] This figure comes from the 2011 Populaţie-Demografie published by Direcţia Judeţeană de Statistică Galaţi.

[6] See Florin Poenaru’s analysis of the 2012 demonstrations in his 2013 Council for European Studies article, “Romanian Protests,” >< (accessed September 14, 2015).

[7] “After a Lifetime of Labor: Informal Work among the Retired in Romania,” in Anthropology Now, April 2014.


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