The world braces for retirement crisis

By Paul Wiseman

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Dec. 30 2013 4:05 p.m. MST

The notion of extended, leisurely retirements, like the ones Bigand, Case and Wiktor are enjoying, is relatively new. German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck established the world's first state pension system in 1889. The United States introduced Social Security in 1935.

In the prosperous years after World War II, governments in rich countries expanded their pension systems. In addition, companies began to offer pensions that paid employees a guaranteed amount each month in retirement — so-called defined-benefit pensions.

It got even better in the 1980s. Many countries began to coax older employees out of the workforce to make way for the young. They did so by reducing the age employees became eligible for full government pension benefits. The age fell from 64.3 years in 1949 to 62.4 years in 1999 in the relatively wealthy countries that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

That created a new, and perhaps unrealistic, "concept of retirement as an extended period of leisure, " Mercer consultant Dreger says. "You'd take long vacations. That was the Golden Age."

Then came the 21st century.

UNDER SIEGE

As the 2000s dawned, governments — and companies — looked at actuarial tables and birth rates and decided they couldn't afford the pensions they'd promised.

People were living longer: The average man in 30 countries the OECD surveyed will live 19 years after retirement. That's up from 13 years in 1958, when many countries were devising their generous pension plans.

The OECD says the average retirement age would have to reach 66 or 67, from 63 now, to "maintain control of the cost of pensions" from longer lifespans.

Compounding the problem is that birth rates are falling just as the bulge of people born in developed countries after World War II retires.

Populations are aging rapidly as a result. The higher the percentage of older people, the harder it is for a country to finance its pension system because relatively fewer younger workers are paying taxes.

In China, the 65-and-older population will rise from 11 percent of the working-age population in 2010 to 42 percent in 2050. In the United States, this old-age dependency ratio will rise from 20 percent to 35 percent.

In response, governments are raising retirement ages and slashing benefits. In 30 OECD countries, the average age at which men can collect full retirement benefits will rise to 64.6 in 2050, from 62.9 in 2010; for women, it will rise from 61.8 to 64.4. Italy is raising the age from 59 to 65.

In the wealthy countries it studied, the OECD found that the pension reforms of the 2000s will cut retirement benefits by an average 20 percent.

Even France, where government pensions have long been generous, has begun modest reforms to reduce costs. France has raised the number of years people must work before they can receive a full pension from 41.5 to 43. More changes are likely coming.

"France is a retirees' paradise now," says Richard Jackson, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "You're not going to want to retire there in 20 to 25 years."

The fate of government pensions is important because they are the cornerstone of retirement income. Across the 34-country OECD, governments provide 59 percent of retiree income, on average. The government's share ranges as high as 86 percent in Hungary. In the United States, the world's largest economy, it's about 38 percent.

If rich countries don't cut pension costs even more, says Standard & Poor's, a credit-rating agency, their government debt will more than triple as a percentage of annual economic output by 2050. The debt of most countries would drop to what is commonly called junk status.

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