When Afaf Gamal, a 60-year-old Egyptian woman living in Cairo, was offered an early retirement package at the age of 45, she didn’t pause for a second before she accepted.
At the time, she had just been promoted to General Manager of a commercial supervising company. She immediately accepted the 50,000 Egyptian pounds offered to her.
“I wasn’t thinking of myself at the time; I have never been married, and I support my mother and younger sister. Securing their future is my only preoccupation,” she says.
All these factors helped her take the decision with ease. She put her bonus in a savings account and lived off the interest with her mother and sister.
Up to that point, things went smoothly enough. She hadn’t yet grasped the true meaning of early retirement.
“My psychological state suffered. After leaving my job, and after my days had previously been packed, my life fell into a monotonous rhythm. There was no difference between one day and the next,” she says.
Gamal is among millions of retirees in the Arab world, but she was also among the youngest of them.
Hers is an issue many retirees face in this part of the world; due to the overwhelming lack of a post-retirement culture of leisure, upon retiring, many Arabs are at a loss over what to with their remaining years. In many cases, this is soon compounded by early signs of senility due to the largely sedentary lives they tend to lead thereon.
All Work and No Play
As with many employees in the Arab world, Gamal had very little going for her outside of her work, to which she dedicated years of her life. Yet, it was only when she retired that she realized how much her job had consumed of her life, with no real personal reward or sense of achievement. She hadn’t even had the time to develop any of her own extracurricular hobbies to occupy her time in retirement.
Moreover, this discovery came to her at a relatively early age. She struggled with all the time she was spending at home, and the empty mornings, devoid of the sounds of her colleagues and customers.
Eventually, she began considering seeking another job opportunity. Yet, this was easier said than done; in a country where the youth unemployment rate stands at 33.4%, the likelihood of a woman in her 50s finding a job was slim to none.
According to a UN report, the worldwide population of people aged over 60 is almost 700 million. The report further notes that by 2050, about 2 billion people will be over 60, accounting for over 20% of the world population.
In the Arab world, the retirement age varies, though the majority retire at 60 or slightly later.
In the UAE, citizens can retire as early as 49 years old, while in Saudi Arabia, the retirement age was recently increased from 60 to 62. Meanwhile, in Egypt, the state is seeking to gradually raise the retirement age to 65.
Tunisian Retirees: An Attempt at a Fresh Start
Things are perhaps slightly different in certain communities in Tunisia, where the idea of post-retirement leisure is slowly making its way into the local culture, according to Sara Ben Hamida, 28, a Tunisian journalist and owner of a media production company.
“The retirement age in Tunisia is between 55 and 60 years old. There are various associations in Tunisian cities that organize trips and activities for retirees, who usually gather at these associations,” Ben Hamida says.
For pensioners in the Arab world, prospects are limited, and in some cases, they are governed by unstable circumstances.
Amid an overwhelming lack of leisure opportunities, Arab retirees are often left whiling away their days in obscurity.
However, outside of this new bubble that is being created, many Tunisians have sought new work opportunities post-retirement.
Some of them undertake farming activities in parallel with their previous jobs, which they continue after retirements. Others work in free trade activities, to which they later devote themselves.
“Among the retirees I know, none of them have resigned themselves to domesticity. Those who retire in Tunisia usually set up some kind of project or seek alternative work,” she says.
In her opinion, previous generations bear a different relationship with their work compared to young people today. She claims that young people are now less attached to their work, and more intent on seeking out a different lifestyle after retirement.
Ben Hamida moreover comments on the financial status of retirees, noting that employees and business owners generally pay regular fees to social insurance funds every three months during their period of employment. After retirement, the fund dispenses a monthly pension that is commensurate with the employee’s salary.
Syrian Retirees and Their Dispersed Children
Mostafa* is a young Syrian man who fled to Algeria, where he works as an architect. At 28, his entire family has been scattered across the region, with his four brothers living in Sudan, Egypt, and Turkey, while his father has refused to leave Syria, despite the dire security situation.
“I suppose a Syrian retirees’ life is much more thrilling than the average pensioner in other Arab countries,” he says with a bitter note of sarcasm.
Not only does the situation in Syria continue to threaten his father’s life on a daily basis; it has also scattered his family in remote places, leaving him senile and alone.
“Syrian retirees can get news from the whole world through the letters they receive from their children, each of whom is in a different country,” Mostafa says.
His sexagenarian father spends hours every day trying to reassure himself that all his children are well. While some have found work, others are still unemployed. In the meantime, Mostafa describes his father’s current state as anticipating death, in whatever form it comes.
In Yemen, Prospects are Dire
For many retirees in Yemen—and perhaps Yemenis in general—their situation can only be described as awaiting death. With a population registering 26.83 million, the country has been wracked by war, Saudi airstrikes, and the threat of famine.
Fouad Abdelqawi, 50, is an educational guidance counsellor. He says pensioners in Yemen withdraw to their homes, awaiting their monthly pensions from the state or social security.
He says the war has eliminated all the cafés where the older citizens used to meet, due to the security situation and frequent power outages.
“Here in Yemen, we say that retirees die waiting. This summarizes their state; opportunities are extremely sparse for young people, for the elderly, they are nonexistent,” he concludes.