They say witches live in the forests surrounding the Holy Cross mountains in central Poland. But Halina Kania pays them no heed as she gathers mushrooms and herbs in the wee hours near her home in Suchedniow, a small town 135 kilometers south of Warsaw. At 66, she draws a pension of $160 a month for her 41 years as an accountant for the town's state-run ceramic pipe factory. Yet she and her husband, Edward, a retired driver and mechanic on a similar pension, make do with fruit and vegetables from their garden and fresh eggs from their chickens. A wood-burning stove helps warm their two-story house.
Halina's eldest daughter, Grazyna Mazuchowska, lives just a few blocks away with her daughter Eliza, 11, the youngest of two children. They rent a fifth-floor walkup in a stark, gray, communist-era building, one of an isolated cluster of tall structures that the townspeople have ironically dubbed "Manhattan." Grazyna, 45, teaches math to junior high-age kids at the local technical school for $200 a month. She also tutors privately on the side because her ex-husband has stopped paying alimony. An unenthusiastic cook, she and Eliza frequently wander over to grandma's house for a hot supper after school.
Patrycja, 21, Grazyna's eldest daughter, ignored her mother's pleas and moved to Warsaw two years ago to study office management. Last summer, when she couldn't afford the $17 tickets to a Michael Jackson concert, she climbed a tree outside the stadium to listen. But now things are looking up. She is deciding between two job offers: one from a German insurance firm, the other from a Polish company organizing trade fairs. Both would pay more than $340 a month. She is taking computer science in weekend classes for a degree from the Warsaw Technical University and may soon study public relations. And she has her own apartment in downtown Warsaw, where ballet posters hang over a mattress on the floor.
One family, three women, three generations: Each was raised in a distinct era of the 20th century, and each is living a different version of Central Europe's hard transition from communism to capitalism. As Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary strive to make the change successfully, these women and millions like them are playing key roles in the process. They outlive their men--in Poland, nine years beyond the 67-year male life expectancy. The shoppers during communist times, they still control the purse strings in most households. And as a more active electorate than ever, women such as the Kanias are making crucial political choices that help decide how swiftly their countries forge ahead with free-market policies.
To understand how the wrenching transition to capitalism has affected daily life in Central Europe, BUSINESS WEEK recently spent several days with the Kania women. We joined the older two for meals in their homes, as they attended the local Catholic church, or walked through the woods surrounding Suchedniow. In Warsaw, the younger Patrycja introduced us to her circle of friends from home, all now also trying to make it in the capital.
The portrait they paint of Polish daily life is a study in contrasts. The nitty-gritty details of Halina's and Grazyna's routines reveal the disturbing realities behind Central Europe's economic potential. Poland's economy has been growing at a 6% annual clip, but the average worker still pulls down only $355 per month--and women make 30% to 40% less than men. A consumer culture is kicking in, but Halina can't afford luxuries such as foreign travel and Grazyna drives a 1976 Fiat. While entrepreneurs in Warsaw can earn thousands of dollars a month, the older Kanias survive on subsistence-level incomes. Although Grazyna's job is secure because she works for the state, unemployment is 12.2% in her region and hitting women more often than men.
Struggling to make ends meet, the older Kania women sometimes resent the hardships of the new Poland. Yet while her grandmother and mother strain to cope with capitalism, young Patrycja exuberantly embraces it. The women's attitudes toward their lot in life differ sharply--largely based on their experiences with communism. Born in an independent Poland, Halina was always a secret opponent of the regime. Grazyna, who lived her entire life under the Soviet-imposed system, mostly conformed to it. And Patrycja, just 13 when the Berlin Wall fell, thrives in the new environment. "My generation has had it pretty easy," she says. "We are the capitalists."
Here are the stories of Halina, Grazyna, and Patrycja.