Spanish unions, among others, have already called their strikes — the result of numerous grievances, mainly soaring unemployment in the aftermath of the recession. What sparked-off the strike however, was the socialist government’s request (at the January World Economic Forum in Davos) that workers should delay retirement and instead draw pensions at age 67, rather than 65.
The Zapatero government is about as socialist/social democratic as it gets in conventional government, yet despite vocal criticism of the banking and business sectors for their part in the credit crash, there is still eventually the same dumping of responsibility onto the workforce – the entire workforce, including those with no hand in the credit markets, no crazy mortgage history or maxed-out credit cards. The explanation is the same explanation that has been rattling around for some years: that the budget deficits can’t allow generous pensions anymore as the pension-age population swells and the youth workforce shrinks. This isn’t just a national concern for Spain, it is emerging everywhere; just this month the troubled Greek government announced its retirement-age raise and centre-right sections of the recently-collapsed Dutch coalition have been officially pushing for the same sort of raise for the last two years.
The EU has been pushing member states to move in this direction for some time now. At a press conference on Tuesday, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso insisted that every EU member country needed to reform its pension system by raising the retirement age. The same call was made by Silvio Berlusconi at the beginning of February. There is clearly a crisis in the cost and affordability of state pension systems, but there appears to be a constant reiteration that raising the retirement age is the ONLY and unavoidable solution.
In the Netherlands, the Socialist Party leader Agnes Kant made a debate speech on this very issue. Considering the problem of cost, she pointed to the continued support of banks, the continued policies of levying of paltry taxes on banks and corporations, who seem to never fill up their share of the social coffers. Above all criticism was levelled at the unfairness of forcing people in heavy jobs such as construction to keep on working to what is now getting closer to age 70; just to ensure they receive a full pension. It seems that the EU’s policy-planners have failed to factor in ideas like steel workers who began their careers aged 14-16 and who are now feeling pretty tired and looking forward to some sort of retirement.
The groups of the lowest-paid manual workers are notoriously also the groups with shorter life-expectancies and higher occurrences of ill-health. Some of those people might not make it to 60, let alone 67. Kant’s simple proposal was that 65 should remain the official retirement age, but with a clause that would allow any people who are able and willing to keep on working past that age should they choose to. Unfortunately, the heavy-presence of the centre-right (and the increasingly impotent Labour Party) could do no more than ask whether or not the socialists were willing to assent to discussing the age raise, without bothering themselves to answer any of the criticisms.
As the problem of longer life-expectancies all round (though more so among the better-off) continues in tandem with the almost universal policies of shrinking and destroying social provision, while at the same time championing an economic system that dodges taxes as it pays million-dollar bonuses, the social pensions problem is one that won’t be going away soon. However, the solutions have by no means been exhausted; in fact there has only ever been the one proposal on the discussion table, and the EU intends to make sure it stays that way.