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Lessons From a Greek Suicide

Grim news out of Athens:

A 61-year old pensioner was found hanging from a tree on Wednesday, in the Agios Filipos park of the Nikaia area. The lifeless body of the pensioner was discovered by a park attendant, who also found his suicide note which read as follows:

"The police does not know me. I have never touched a drink in my life.

Of women and drugs I have never even dreamed of. I have never been to a kafenio (coffee house), I just worked all day! But I commited one horrendous crime: I became a professional at age 40 and I plunged myself in debt. Now, I’m an idiot of 61 years and I have to pay. I hope my grandchildren are not born in Greece, seeing as there will be no Greeks here from now on. Let them at least know another language, because Greek will be wiped off the map! Unless of course there was a politician with Thatcher’s b***s so as to put us and our state in line.

A man holds a placard bearing the Greek flag.
Anne-christine Poujoulat
A man holds a placard bearing the Greek flag.

Signed, Alexandros 29/5/2012”

I’m posting this not just to be morbid, of course. There are a few interesting things that this story tells us.

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First, notice that the man who killed himself is described as “a 61-year old pensioner.” Greece’s official retirement age was 58 until it was raised to 61 in 2010. The average for countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is 63.2. Prior to recent reforms, the average Greek pension paid almost 96 percent of average annual lifetime earnings. The OECD average is 61 percent.

In the United States, we don’t use the phrase “pensioner”—we talk about retirees. While it's possible in some occupations in the U.S. to become a retiree at 61, that’s quite rare. Forty-three percent of people between the ages of 60 and 64 in the U.S. are employed. In Greece, that number is just 18 percent.

Forget for a moment about the strain this puts on the public coffers of nations like Greece. Think bigger. If you are losing the economic productivity of your citizens over the age of 60, the entire productive capacity of your economy is diminished.

But a further wrinkle caught my eye. The suicide victim was not a "crazed" Greek socialist. In fact, he seems to admire Margaret Thatcher: His big complaint is that no Greek politician has “Thatcher’s b***s” to reign in the state. Extraordinary.

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