For love, not money, Armenian pensioners remain on the job

Journalist: Karin Manukyan

Edition: Labor

For over four decades, Avetis Vardanyan, 73, has been helping the cast of the Yerevan Opera Theater put on award-winning productions as stage manager.

“I will work as long as I am needed and able,” he says. 

Avetis, who is known as Vitsya, is one of several pension-aged staff who continue to work at the theater despite the chance to retire.

Nina Mkrtchyan, 65, began working in the Opera Theatre immediately after high school as a make-up artist. After taking a break to cope with a family tragedy, Nina returned to the theater in 1988 and never looked back.

For the past 34 years, Nina has been working in the wardrobe department at the theater. It is her responsibility to make sure the actors’ costumes are ready and in good condition for performances.

The mother of three says over the years, the customs have become her “children.”

“I feel sorry for spoiled or damaged clothes. I treat them like I would my three children," she says. “There is no word to describe my love for it [the theater]. The theater feels like home.”

An estimated 10.7 percent (71,100) of Armenian citizens are 65 years or older, and legally able to retire. But due to finances or, like Vitsya and Nina, the love of their work, not all choose to. 

Psychologist Mariam Melkumyan says the work gives their lives meaning. “There is such a tendency when individuals retire, they begin to face a crisis,” she says.  “Sometimes they fall into depression because they realize they are no longer doing anything beneficial․ In Armenia when individuals retire, they do nothing except sit at home, care for their grandkids, or live alone.”  

Legally, Nina could have retired this year but she decided to stay on the job.

“Staying at home is very difficult, you feel unnecessary. Here I feel valuable,” she says.

“I'm not complaining because my legs, hands, and brain still function. I'm not sure how many years I'll be healthy, but I'll try since they need me at home and here.” 

Her colleague, Serob Gevorgyan, is 68 and also has no plans to retire.

An engraver by profession, he fell in love with the theater after watching a performance of Romeo and Juliet in 1972.

“The way they acted, as well as the music, captured my heart. I was so taken with it that everything inside me turned upside down, and I even forgot I was an engraver by profession. I was certain at the minute that I wanted to be a part of it,” he recalls.

He had friends working in the theater and he joined them, first as an actor and then as the head of the actors’ union at the opera in 1983. Eventually, he moved to the props department, which he now heads. 

Salary and job satisfaction aside, many of the pension-age members of the staff worry there is no one to take their place if they do retire.

 “Since 1995 I have been trying to teach someone this job, but for many reasons, including the low salary, there is no one to continue my job as passionately as I have been doing it for years,” Serob says.

He adds that commitment and passion are vital to a long career. "First and foremost, you should not be apathetic to work; you must be passionate," he says.

Vitsya, the stage manager at the Opera, agrees. He notes he tried to train a replacement however, he underscores that “there is no one who will continue my job.” 

“I don't see anyone who will do it with enough passion that I can peacefully hand it to him,” Vitsya says.

Mikael Melik-Ohanyan, 73, credits his love of work and the arts to his long career. He started working at the Ghazaros Saryan Art School in 1995 as a plumber. It was his second career, after nearly thirty years working in factories. 

At the school, Mikael was driven by his love of music to learn new skills and was eventually promoted to fabric specialist.  Today, he is responsible for managing the property, including the stage, which he prepares for concerts. He says he has no plans to retire. 

“I can't picture myself sitting around doing nothing,” he says. “Even when I'm at home… I work in my garden. I dislike those who have the ability to work yet stay idle.”

This article was produced in the framework of Chai Khana Fellowship program - Spring 2022

We are a non-profit media organization covering the topics and groups of people that are frequently ignored by mainstream media. Our work would not be possible without support from our community and readers like you. Your donations enable us to support journalists who cover underrepresented stories across the region.