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Global retirement crisis: What it means from Tokyo to Paris

Even before the Great Recession, workers worldwide faced a looming global retirement crisis. As retirement benefits are slashed and traditional pension plans eliminated, the post-WWII generation will face lower standards of living.

By David McHugh, Elaine Kurtenbach, and Paul WisemanAP Business Writers / December 29, 2013

Dong Linhua, 59, speaks at his home in Shanghai in September 2013. Dong, a former Shanghai factory worker and now a real estate investor, who owns three apartments and two small shop spaces says, 'I heard that the authorities might postpone the age of the retirement, but I sure hope not, since I've already worked for almost 42 years.'

Eugene Hoshiko/AP

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Washington

A global retirement crisis is bearing down on workers of all ages.

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Spawned years before the Great Recession and the financial meltdown in 2008, the crisis was significantly worsened by those twin traumas. It will play out for decades, and its consequences will be far-reaching.

Many people will be forced to work well past the traditional retirement age of 65 — to 70 or even longer. Living standards will fall, and poverty rates will rise for the elderly in wealthy countries that built safety nets for seniors after World War II. In developing countries, people's rising expectations will be frustrated if governments can't afford retirement systems to replace the tradition of children caring for aging parents.

The problems are emerging as the generation born after World War II moves into retirement.

"The first wave of under-prepared workers is going to try to go into retirement and will find they can't afford to do so," says Norman Dreger, a retirement specialist in Frankfurt, Germany, who works for Mercer, a global consulting firm.

The crisis is a convergence of three factors:

— Countries are slashing retirement benefits and raising the age to start collecting them. These countries are awash in debt after overspending last decade and racking up enormous deficits since the recession. Now, they face a demographics disaster as retirees live longer and falling birth rates mean there will be fewer workers to support them.

— Companies have eliminated traditional pension plans that cost employees nothing and guaranteed them a monthly check in retirement.

— Individuals spent freely and failed to save before the recession, and they saw much of their wealth disappear once it hit.

Those factors have been documented individually. What is less appreciated is their combined ferocity and their global scope.

"Most countries are not ready to meet what is sure to be one of the defining challenges of the 21st century," the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, concluded in a report this fall.

Mikio Fukushima, who is 52 and lives in Tokyo, is typical of those facing an uncertain retirement. Fukushima, who works in private investment, worries that he might have to move somewhere cheaper, maybe Malaysia, after age 70 to get by comfortably on income from his investments and a public pension of just $10,000 a year.

If he stayed in Japan, he says, "We wouldn't be able to travel at all."

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