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Like France, will US soon move to boost retirement age?

The prospect of a higher official retirement age infuriates many French. Boosting the age limit in the US is one way to help make Social Security solvent, many economists say. Would Americans be just as mad?

By Staff writer / October 20, 2010

Firefighters put out a fire of a burning truck after clashes between the police and youth over raising the retirement age, in Lyon, central France, on Oct. 20.

Laurent Cipriani/AP

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The issue that's provoking angry protests in France – proposals to raise the official retirement age – could come to the United States, too, and sooner than many Americans may expect.

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In France, the furor involves government plans to boost the minimum age for retirement benefits from 60 to 62, and the age for full benefits from 65 to 67.

The move would essentially put France in sync with America's current eligibility rules for Social Security. And it has been met with a storm of protest. By some estimates, 3 million French citizens have participated in sometimes-violent demonstrations and strikes over a measure the parliament could approve this week.

Could all this happen in the US?

Proposals to raise the retirement age, definitely. The riots and tear gas? Impossible to know.

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Boosting age limits is widely seen by finance experts as a pragmatic way to put Social Security on a path of long-term solvency.

Americans are not as prone as the French to take to the streets over the age of retirement. Then again, Social Security isn't called the "third rail" of politics for nothing. It's possible that age-change proposals could be coupled with other tax or benefit adjustments that, together, would be deeply unpopular with many Americans.

One thing's for sure: This week's uproar in France symbolizes a financial reality that many advanced nations will have to face. Economic hard times in the wake of a deep recession are coinciding with long-run fiscal challenges that require politically difficult choices. Whether the country is America or France, there's more fuel for potential social unrest than there was five years ago.

The good news is Americans have a culture that emphasizes the virtue of working.

"We've always prided ourselves on our work ethic," says Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonpartisan group that promotes public discourse on fiscal issues.

That, coupled with public awareness of the nation's fiscal challenges, suggests less likelihood that millions of Americans might take to the streets in rage, she says.

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