Retiring at 62? The French have it absolutely right
The route of the protest marches in Paris runs along our boulevard. The cycle of French life is such that every few years the government tries to force everyone to work longer until a popular uprising ruins the plan. As Emmanuel Macron wants to raise the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64, the uprising has resumed. The other day, I squeezed out of our house, past the CPRF podium in front of our door, into a street filled with demonstrators, and looked through the banners: “Give your life for the authorities, no!”
I used to take the standard Anglo-Saxon point of view, which the French should accept as reality. 62-year-old French people can now expect to live to 85, close to the longest median retirement age in world history. Work to 65 and you’ll still have 20 years to live eggs, I always thought that. But my life here has been a series of realizations that on the most serious issues – the war in Iraq, nuclear power, cheese – the French are usually right. I changed my mind about pensions. The French have led the world in creating a glorious new stage in life: the first golden decade of retirement. Their system remains almost affordable. Everyone else should learn from them.
Valhalla for French pensioners is a recent invention. Simone de Beauvoir wrote in 1970 that society treated the old man as “rubbish” with a “miserable” standard of living. But in 1981, François Mitterrand became president, touting a new vision for retirement: “Finally live!” He lowered the retirement age from 65 to 60.
Even today, many French workers leave before they reach 60. As companies crowd out older workers, France is “close to the world record for inactivity among people over 55,” says economist Claudia Senick.
Retirement in France is divided into two distinct phases. The second stage is brutal: decline, widowhood, nursing home, and finally the end. But the French ideal is a golden decade of freedom that comes first. When you’re in your sixties, your work is done, your kids are grown, your parents are usually dead, and for the only time in your life you can do whatever you want.
When the French retire, their health first improves, Senick notes, probably because they exercise more. Few fall into the void: in 2003, only 9% called retirement a bad time, according to the national statistical institute Insee. French pensioners have a higher average standard of living than working people, when you take into account the fact that pensioners do not usually finance children or mortgages.
A pensioner I know here regaled me with tales of her winters in India, where she and her comrades party like teenage tourists. Daniel Lofer, Year of the Phoenix, cites other happy retirements: starting the day with a two-hour breakfast in the garden, visiting a museum exhibition twice so you can remember it, or searching for past lovers. Men often reinvent themselves as volunteers, and women as grandmothers.
Much of French adult life is built in the service of the Golden Decade. Many people start dreaming about retirement in their twenties. Only 21% of French people say work is “very important” in their lives, up from 60% in 1990, Fondation Jean-Jaurès reports.
Working life is now understood as 172 trimesters (for those born since 1973) of contributing to a full state pension. The amount you pay is very modestly related to how much the state will give you at the end. In France, private pensions are rare and retirement is meant to equalize.
I understand Macron’s arguments for reform. But current largesse is only moderately unsustainable: France is aging more slowly than neighboring countries, its debt-to-GDP ratio of 112.5% is lower than that of the US, and total pension payments are projected to remain stable as a percentage of GDP as pensions are not will keep up with salaries.
Some reforms make sense – for example, encouraging older people to work at least part-time, like about 400,000 people. persistent already doing. But it’s frustrating to see ministers, economists and business leaders urging everyone else to keep going. The Persuaders are the longest-lived and highest-paid people in France. Unlike most employees, they get status and enjoyment from their work.
Here is my draft proposal for French pension reform: make the top 10% of workers work until, say, 67. Since they are the largest taxpayers, this should help replenish the system. Let ordinary people have fun while they still can.
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