The route of protest marches in Paris runs along our boulevard. The cycle of French life is that every few years the government tries to make everyone work harder, until a popular uprising kills the plan.
With Emmanuel Macron wanting to raise the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64, the revolt has resumed. The other day, I squeezed out of our building, past the Communist Party tent in front of the door, onto the street packed with demonstrators, and read the banners: “Don’t give your life to the boss!”
I used to adopt the standard Anglo-Saxon idea that the French should accept reality. The 62-year-old French can now expect to live to 85, creating what is close to the longest average retirement in global history. Work until you’re 65 and you still have 20 years of bocce, that’s what I always thought.
But my life here has been a series of realizations that on the most important issues – the Iraq war, nuclear energy, cheese – the French tend to be right. I changed my mind about retirement. The French led the world in creating a glorious new phase of life: the first golden decade of retirement. Your system remains nearly workable. All others should learn from them.
Valhalla for French retirees is a recent invention. In 1970, Simone de Beauvoir wrote that society treated the elderly as “trash”, with “miserable” living standards. But in 1981 François Mitterrand became president promoting a new vision of retirement: “Live at last!” He cut the retirement age from 65 to 60.
Even today, many French workers leave before they reach 60. As companies expel older workers, France is “close to the world record for the inactivity rate of people over 55”, says the economist Claudia Senik.
French retirement is divided into two distinct phases. Phase two is brutal: decay, widowhood, nursing home, and finally, well, the end. But the French ideal is the golden decade of freedom that comes before. At 60, your work is done, the kids are raised, the parents are usually dead, and for the only time in your life, you can do whatever you want.
When the French retire, their health initially improves, notes Senik, presumably because they exercise more. Few fall into the void: in 2003, just 9% described the transition to retirement as a bad period, reported the national statistics office Insee. French retirees enjoy higher median living standards than working people, given the fact that retirees are typically not financing children or mortgages.
A pensioner I know entertains me with stories of her winters in India, where she and her friends party like teenage backpackers. Danièle Laufer, in “L’année du Phénix” [O ano da fênix], mentions other happy retirements: starting the day with a two-hour breakfast in the garden, going twice to a museum exhibition to remember, or finding old boyfriends. Men often reinvent themselves as volunteers and women as grandparents.
Much of French adult life is structured in the service of the golden decade. Many people start dreaming of retirement in their 20s. Only 21% of French people say work occupies a “very important” place in their lives, down from 60% in 1990, reports the Jean-Jaurès Foundation.
Working life is now conceived as 172 quarters (for those born from 1973 onwards) paying contributions to a full state pension. The amount you pay only modestly correlates to how much the state will give you in the end. In France, private pensions are rare and retirement aims to equalize.
I understand Macron’s arguments in favor of reform. But current largesse is only modestly unsustainable: France is aging more slowly than neighboring countries, its debt-to-GDP ratio of 112.5% is below that of the United States, and total pension payments are expected to remain stable as a percentage of GDP. , as pensions will not keep pace with wages.
Some reforms make sense – for example, encouraging seniors to work at least part-time, as some 400,000 persistent people already do. But it is unpleasant to watch ministers, economists and business leaders urging everyone to keep working. The exhorters are the longest-lived and highest-earning people in France. Unlike most employees, they derive status and pleasure from their jobs.
Here is my preliminary proposal for French pension reform: make the richest 10% work until, say, age 67. Since they are the biggest contributors, this should help replenish the system. Let the common people enjoy themselves while they can.
Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves
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