Will we work until we die?

Over the span of two months, French demonstrators have taken to the streets to demand a recall of the government’s pension reform, which raises the retirement age from 62 to 64. The bill has already passed both houses of Parliament, with the Senate approving the reform conventionally by a vote, while in the National Assembly, article 49.3 of the French Constitution was invoked by Prime Minister Borne in order to pass the bill without a vote – an extremely controversial decision. While the reform has not yet been signed into law by President Macron, the protests and riots persist.

Now angry about both the use of a far-reaching measure like article 49.3 and a rise of the retirement age, a large number of young people have joined the protests. Many joined because they worry about the state of the French democracy with the use of the contentious constitutional provision, but perhaps more surprisingly, students seem already worried about their parent’s and even their own retirement. An observation which is reflected in a survey by staffing company Manpower Group from 2016, which showed that worldwide, more than half of people between the age of 20 and 34 expect having to work beyond 65, which is a common age for full retirement worldwide. Furthermore, over a quarter of millennials declared they believe they will work past the age of 70, and even 12 percent think they will work until they die.

Do you think I am pleased to do this reform? No.

President Macron about his pension reform

Indeed, in past decades, a clear trend can be detected around the world, where the retirement age has been increasing, slowly but surely. Today, it is France that will increase its retirement age, tomorrow it will be the United States which is set to move the full retirement age to 67. The issue is on the political agenda worldwide. There must be a good reason for governments to raise the retirement age. As President Macron said in an interview that became (in)famous on TikTok, “Est-ce que vous pensez que ça me fait plaisir de faire cette réforme? Non” (“Do you think I am pleased to do this reform? No”). In other words: Pension reform is an uncomfortable, yet unavoidable measure. At least, that is how it is often presented.

Generally, the same arguments are put forward by governments to justify and explain the need for pension reform and inevitably raising the retirement age, some explaining why it is possible and others why it is necessary.

A higher retirement age becomes possible because on average, life expectancy is increasing and people get old in better health than ever before, making it possible for them to keep working for a longer time. Obviously, these two factors are related and huge advancements in healthcare and better living conditions, as well as wider access to these, have helped raise the average life expectancy globally. Fewer of us die in infancy, or in our teen years, or while giving birth – moments in life that were far more deadly in any other moment in history, and unfortunately still are dangerous in many parts of the world today. In the United Kingdom of 1841, the life expectancy of a baby girl and boy would be 42 and 40 years old respectively, while today, these figures have almost doubled to 83 and 79 years old. Nevertheless, this enormous increase in life expectancy is not synonymous with a significantly higher life span. When a Brit who was born in 1841 would reach their mid-twenties, they could grow just as old as we do nowadays. Unquestionably, modern medicine is able to prolong our lives by a few years but the difference is not significant.

Because of an overall aging population, the working population will become insufficient to support the large group that will retire in the coming years. More people are reaching the retirement age, while people have fewer children than before. The money to support the growing number of retirees will have to be found from somewhere. One possibility would be increasing taxes on companies or workers to finance this development. Another possibility, in which most governments see salvation, is to expand the working population. By raising the retirement age, people will remain in the workforce for a longer period of time. Alternatively, governments can opt for encouraging migration to grow the number of workers who can pay tax and thus, support retirees.

Eventually, we can only guess what the world and our lives will look like in fifty years, and consequently, at what age we will be able to retire. How governments will deal with the aging of our population, and if that will lead to a higher retirement age, will be a political battle fought today and in the decades to come. 

Further Reading:

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.