March 5, 2023: The nationwide protests in France against the government’s plans to bring in anti-people pension reforms as part of a free-market agenda have thrown the spotlight on the distressed aged population in many other countries as well where similar policies have been imposed.
Be it the smooth-talking, deceptive governments of the western democracies, or the hypocritical former Communist nations, the picture is the same everywhere when it comes to the treatment of the retired workforce. Around the world, senior citizens are living in poverty, or getting stripped of their financial privileges, or struggling to meet the rising costs of healthcare and necessities.
According to a UN report, there is a serious risk of old-age poverty rates climbing unless authorities correct the unfair policies. With life expectancy up and birthrates down, over the next 35 years, the proportion of people aged 60 or more is set to increase massively. During this period, the number of people aged 60 or more is estimated to more than double, reaching nearly 2.1 billion.
The report, titled “Income Poverty in Old Age: An Emerging Development Priority”, pointed out that if the existing labour and pension policies are allowed to continue, it will become a challenge to sustain pension levels in financially poor countries as well as in wealthy nations. This is particularly so because of anti-people pension scheme reforms imposed by the governments looking to cut costs in order to reduce debt and deficit.
“Such adjustments undermine the adequacy of pension systems and therefore reduce their ability to prevent poverty in old age. It is alarming that, under existing laws and regulations, globally only 42% of future pensioners can expect to receive a social security pension,” the world body said in the damning report.
Currently, the global attention is on France as several rounds of protests in recent weeks repeatedly brought the much-celebrated G7 country to a standstill. French authorities are facing public outrage for their planned move to jack up the retirement age from 62 to 64, and making only those people who’ve been in service for at least 43 years eligible for state pension – a benefit that had been extended to all retirees in France until now.
US, UK SITUATION MUCH
WORSE THAN IN FRANCE
In the US, the official retirement age had already been increased from 65 to 67 in a phased manner. The change was enacted in 1983 ostensibly to tackle a financial crisis that the American social security system was said to be going through at that time.
The UK, too, has taken similar anti- senior citizen steps, raising the state pensionable age of its citizens in phases based on gender and date of birth. While under a previous legislation, a 1950-born woman would get her pension after reaching 60, under a new law, a person born between March 6, 1961 and April 5, 1977 would be eligible for pension only on reaching 67.
The American and British public are known to be freely championing pro-people and pro-freedom causes, often hitting the streets over issues ranging from racism to wars to gay rights. Yet, the cold policies of their governments towards senior citizens have hardly sparked major demonstrations – at least not by what we see in the western media.
One hypothesis for an overall tolerance there despite draconian retirement age policies could be that these two G7 nations are too affluent for their public to strongly take exception to unfair pension reforms. To use a reductionist example, if you live in a wealthy country where pay scales are extremely high and living standards are very good, you might not be easily tempted to be violently outraged over changing retirement age policies – as against people living in the financially troubled global south, where basic amenities are so poor and so few that every little state benefit counts.
BLEAK PICTURE IN
RUSSIA AS WELL
It’s a similar picture for the ageing population in Russia. The authorities there are gradually hiking the normal retirement age to 65 for men and to 60 for women by 2028. While the normal pensionable age for the old-age insurance pension is 61.5 years for men and 56.5 years for women with at least 11 years of insurance coverage in 2020, it is also being gradually increased to 15 years by 2024.
Just like in France, Russia’s bid to raise the retirement age to 65 had triggered street protests in 2018 and 2019, though in vain.
The situation in Russia is much more worrisome than it seems. “In dozens of regions of the country, male life expectancy is lower than or very near to the new retirement age, meaning that many will never live long enough to see a pension,” wrote Andrea Peters in an article on World Socialist Web Site.
THE SCENE IN INDIA
In India, the retirement age of government employees is 60, though doctors in central government service and also in a few state governments can work till they complete 65.
Concerningly, the UGC (University Grants Commission), India’s higher education regulator, has recommended that the superannuation age of university teachers be raised to 65, but it’s not binding on state varsities. Again, in a number of states, college and university teachers continue in their jobs up to the age of 65.
Like most financially unstable countries, India doesn’t have a universal social security system to protect the elderly from economic deprivation. However, public sector employees and also a substantial workforce in the non-government organised sector are entitled to three superannuation benefits – pension, provident fund, and gratuity.
The country’s pension policy hinges on financing through employer and employee participation. “This has, however, restricted the coverage to the organised sector workers – denying the vast majority of the workforce in the unorganised sector access to formal channels of old age economic support,” writes Ranadev Goswami, fellow at Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Bangalore.
Of course, people at the lower end of the economic strata can avail of several central and state government-run social assistance programmes and welfare funds. But there’s a catch. The amounts they get from most of these schemes are way too small to cover even their basic needs.
The situation could turn more challenging in the coming years, with the percentage of senior Indian citizens, aged 60+, steadily climbing from 8% to 20% of the population by 2050.
SWAY OF CORPORATE EMPIRES
One major reason why governments around the world are whining about pension systems that they claim are becoming increasingly unsustainable is the de facto sway of the corporate world over what benefits state machineries should extend to their citizens.
In an article in The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, John Williamson and Matthew Williams wrote that forces of neoliberalism, globalisation or free-market reforms could be responsible for what we are seeing now.
“As a structure, neoliberalism involves the transformation of the global market in a way that increased the power of certain social sectors, such as transnational corporations and investors, inter-governmental organisations such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and the leading industrialised nation-states, Japan and the countries of western Europe,” the authors wrote.
Many pro-neoliberal experts (read: pro-corporate advocacy agents) had sought a shift from an existing pay-as-you-go Defined Account (PAYGO DB – where employees have assured benefits) to either a Funded Defined Contribution (FDC – where there are no assured employee benefits, though they need to contribute mandatorily, with or without any contribution from the employers, as per the contract) or a mixed PAYGO DB and FDC system “as the best solution to the expected financing problems many pension systems face”.
Data from the ILO (International Labour Organisation) compiled between 2010 and 2020 tells us that altogether 291 measures were announced by various governments aimed at “rationalising expenditure on adjusting revenues of pension schemes to foster economic sustainability, especially with regard to contributory schemes”.
The UN agency said, “Of these , 150 were related to delaying pension receipt by raising the retirement age (100 announcements), the elimination of early retirement, the introduction or increase of penalties on early retirement, the introduction or increase of incentives for late retirement, and measures aimed at increasing the eligibility period or tightening eligibility criteria.”
The larger picture shows that the pro-corporate neoliberal agenda has materially diminished the retirement security of working and middle-class income households over the last 40 years.
“These trends are likely to continue as long as the neoliberal policy agenda remains dominant, ensuring that the economic precarity increasingly experienced by workers since the 1970s will emerge in retirement for growing numbers of future retirees,” says Larry Polivka, writing for the Annual Review of Gerontology and Geriatrics in 2020.
Polivka made the remark in the context of the US, but it holds true for most other geographies where authorities are treading a similar path.
THE CHILE EXPERIMENT
It’s worth looking at Chile’s experience here. The Latin American nation was the first in the world to privatise pensions in 1980, with the World Bank and the IMF acting as cheerleaders of the move. Soon after, more than two dozen countries, many of them in South America, copied from the Chilean playbook, either partly or wholly.
Four decades later, the measure in Chile is today considered a failure. Employees received meagre amounts, and the government had to support far more retirees in the new system than it had anticipated. The poor returns led to widespread street protests in 2019, precipitating the formation of a Constituent Assembly to frame a new constitution.
Chilean authorities are now all set to scrap the current private system by making a public pay-as-you-go system the main pillar of social security.
It is ironic that the American news outlet Bloomberg, a known admirer of pro-corporate policies, came up with an obituary of the policy under the tell-tale headline: “Chile’s failed pensions are Neoliberalism’s Badge of Shame”.
In India, too, many economists, orators, and activists have been speaking incessantly about the rise of corporate empires and their eventual impact on state-driven public welfare and social security. They include Vandana Shiva, Utsa Patnaik, Rajiv Dixit, and P Sainath, to name a few. But their warnings of looming anti-workforce policies have only made a marginal impact at best.
The bottom line is that the pension protests in France are not just about France. They are about the entire world. Be it a democracy or an autocracy, an affluent nation or a poor country, a capitalist setup or a socialist one, a secular nation or a theocracy, senior citizens who value their retirement benefits aren’t breathing easy anywhere.
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