Europe balks at reforms pushing retirement age back

Demonstrators in France and Austria this week protested government efforts to make taxpayers contribute more by staying in the workforce longer.

Anthony Kilner had big retirement plans. After working hard and saving prudently for 3-1/2 decades, he wanted to devote more time to golf, his granddaughter, and his garden. He even thought about buying a vacation home in Florida.

Little did he suspect that eight years after retiring, he would be forced to work 40 hours a week at a local supermarket - greeting customers and announcing special offers - just to scrape by.

"It's a good [thing] I've got my health," he fumes. "Who would look after me if I wasn't healthy?"

The prospect of a retirement like this is alarming workers across Europe as economies struggle and state pension plans creak under the weight of aging populations and low birthrates.

Currently there are four people of working age for every pensioner in Europe. By 2050, there will be just two for every retiree. The average senior citizen already spends 20 years drawing a pension, compared to 13 years a generation ago, and life expectancy is seen as increasing by another five years in the next half-century. With birth rates stagnating, the outlook is stark: Fewer and fewer people will be generating economic wealth and growth, while more and more will be dependent on it.

This week, more than a million demonstrators protested the French government's plans to force people to stay in the work force longer.

The problem is felt most acutely in countries that operate a so-called "pay-as-you-go" system in which today's workforce subsidizes today's pensioners through a state-run mechanism. In France, Germany, and Italy, pension payments currently account for 12 to 14 percent of GDP, and this is set to rise by 3 to 6 percent by 2050.

It's a scenario that has elicited dire warnings from Frankfurt, where the European Central Bank has its headquarters. In a surprisingly frank report last month, the bank said governments had to radically overhaul their pension systems, preparing people to expect to work longer, and provide for their own retirement income. In the 12 countries that have adopted the euro - the retirement age now averages between 58 and 64 for men, lower for women.

"Overly generous provisions will need to be reduced," the report said. "Particular attention should be paid to raising effective retirement ages," warning that otherwise, budgets would be sorely tested.

Such rumblings about reform have prompted angry responses. This week's strike in France ran from Tuesday through Thursday. Austrians also returned to the streets to protest a pension reform provision on Tuesday - after a rally last week. The French government is proposing to gradually increasethe time that employees must contribute to earn full retirement rights. And Austria wants to penalize early retirees by reducing their benefits.

The moves are part of a broad European effort to get individuals to provide for their own retirement. The ECB says it's time for "strengthening the prefunding of pension entitlements" - a euphemism for encouraging companies and individuals to share the burden, as they do in the US and Britain.

As Andrew Smith, Britain's work and pensions minister, puts cheerily puts it: "People are leading longer and healthier lives, and we need to ensure they take action to plan for the future."

To spread the burden of funding retirement, the European Union on Tuesday pushed through new rules allowing companies to run Europe-wide pension funds, rather than costly ones in each state. But the corporate sector is discovering the difficulties of funding pensions.

British firms have for years offered staff guaranteed pensions at the end of an employee's service, putting aside sums of money in stocks and shares to be used for the retirement payout. Yet after three years of falling share markets, companies now find they do not have enough cash to honor such promises. Many are ending the programs. Many more are wondering how to cover multibillion-dollar holes generated by them: Under new accounting rules designed to ensure that a mass pension fund fraud perpetrated by media tycoon Robert Maxwell does not recur, pension liabilities can no longer be hidden in the hope they will go away.

If the state cannot help, and the company washes its hands, workers will have to fall back on their own means. Some see real estate as a safety net, though the experience of the early 1990s shows that property values are fickle. Many have private pensions, although Mr. Kilner's experience would indicate that these can end up being an empty shell rather than a nest egg.

In Kilner's case, a combination of falling stock markets, low annuity rates, and questionable advice from his pensions company decimated his private retirement fund. From his private pension plan carefully built up over years, he had assembled a nest egg worth more than $161,000 - enough, he felt, to retire at 56. But market vicissitudes have hurt the fund so that it provides a payout of just $300 a month, a fraction of what he had hoped for in better economic times.

Kilner, who turned 64 on Tuesday, will not qualify for his British pension for another year, and even then he can bank on only about $130 a week from the government - "a drop in the ocean," as he puts it. "Why is it that we can find money for the war in Iraq, for asylum seekers, and yet we can't look after our old-age pensioners?" he asks.

Thousands of others like him are discovering that weak stock markets and low interest rates are a recipe for inadequate annuities (annual pensions).

Estimates suggest that if an individual wants to draw a comfortable pension, he has to build up an investment "pot" of £500,000 ($811,000). The average wage in Britain is currently just below £30,000 ($48,000).

The conundrum is so vexed, that many people are simply throwing up their hands. A recent survey found that 1 in 7 Britons had made no pension provision at all, with 21 percent unsure of how they will financially survive when they retire.

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