WASHINGTON (AP) — A global retirement crisis is bearing down on workers of all ages.
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.”
People like Fukushima who are fretting over their retirement prospects stand in contrast to many who are already retired. Many workers were recipients of generous corporate pensions and government benefits that had yet to be cut.
Jean-Pierre Bigand, 66, retired Sept. 1, in time to enjoy all the perks of a retirement system in France that’s now in peril. Bigand lives in the countryside outside the city of Rouen in Normandy. He has a second home in Provence. He’s just taken a vacation on Oleron island off the Atlantic Coast and is planning a five-week trip to Guadeloupe. “Travel is our biggest expense,” he says.
In Rochester, Minn., Elaine Case, 58, and her husband, Bill Wiktor, 61, both retired at 56 after three-decade careers at IBM. They have company pensions and will receive Social Security in a few years. They love to travel. Wiktor climbed Mount Kilimanjaro last year. They’ve taken a trans-Atlantic cruise and plan next year to hike Peru’s Inca trail.
“We’re both enjoying our second lives immensely and with gratitude,” Case says.
A BRIEF GOLDEN AGE
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.
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.
Many of those facing a financial squeeze in retirement can look to themselves for part of the blame. They spent many years before the Great Recession borrowing and spending instead of setting money aside for old age. In the U.S., households took on an additional $5.4 trillion in debt — an increase of 75 percent — from the start of 2003 until mid-2008, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The savings rate fell from nearly 13 percent of after-tax income in the early 1980s to 2 percent in 2005.
The National Institute on Retirement Security estimates that Americans are at least $6.8 trillion short of what they need to have saved for a comfortable retirement. For those 55 to 64, the shortfall comes to $113,000 per household.
“People are going to be shocked at how little they have,” says Alicia Munnell, director of Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research. “For some middle-income people, it will mean canceling the RV” — the recreational vehicle that has become a symbol of retiree life in America. For those worse off, she says, it could mean an old age in poverty.
THE FINANCIAL CRISIS MAKES THINGS WORSE
As if demographics weren’t burden enough, the outlook became worse when the global banking system went into a panic in 2008 and tipped the world into the worst recession since the 1930s.
Government budget deficits — the gap between what governments spend each year and what they collect in taxes — swelled in Europe and the United States. Tax revenue shrank, and governments pumped money into rescuing their banks and financing unemployment benefits and other welfare programs.
That escalated pressure on governments to reduce spending on pensions or raise revenue. Hungary took one of the most draconian steps: It demanded that its citizens surrender their private retirement accounts to the government or give up their government pensions. Poland seized a portion of private retirement accounts. Ireland imposed an annual tax on retirement accounts.