Back to work, grandma - Macleans.ca

Back to work, grandma

Why the retirement age needs to change

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Back to work, grandma—why the retirement age needs to change

The Star Tribune/Courtney Perry/AP

What explains the mystique of age 65?

There was no particular logic at work in 1966 when Canada settled on 65 as the normal age of retirement for the Canada Pension Plan (CPP). We were simply copying the “minimum retirement age” the United States chose for itself back in 1934. Since then, the notion of 65 as the proper age at which to stop working and start enjoying oneself has come to be seen as a sacred right. It’s not. And it needs to change.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper hinted at looming changes to Canada’s public retirement system. This has been widely interpreted to mean a shift in the age of eligibility for Old Age Security (OAS) from 65 to 67. It’s an entirely reasonable idea, and has been predictably met with outrage and protest.

Continuous increases in life expectancy are fundamentally altering the mathematics of retirement in Canada. When we settled on 65 as the social norm for retirement almost half a century ago, life expectancy was around 72 years. Today it is almost 81 years. And there’s no reason to believe these gains—driven by better health care technology, drugs and education—will stop. Over the past 100 years Canadians have added, on average, an extra three months to their lifespans year after year. But retirement at age 65 remains fixed.

More years of leisure and comparatively fewer for work, partly paid for by government, sounds like a great deal. Yet such a scenario is unsustainable over the long run. According to a recent article in Canadian Public Policy by McMaster University economists Frank Denton and Byron Spencer, the ratio of Canadian workers per retiree will drop from 4:1 to 2:1 over the next two decades. If retirement programs are kept at current levels, this will inevitably require a doubling of the public cost of retirement—a massive burden to place upon future generations. The obvious solution is to adjust the age of retirement.

Canada is unique among developed nations in ignoring the issue until now. Countries that have already raised or are raising their retirement age include: the U.S., France, Germany, Italy, Britain, Denmark, Australia, Belgium, Japan, Finland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Turkey . . . and on and on. It’s worth noting that the U.S. began the process of hiking its retirement age to 67 as far back as 1983.

And yet opponents are now accusing Harper of unleashing a hidden agenda on retirees. “The government has taken off the sweater vest,” remarked NDP finance critic Peter Julian. Critics point out Canada is in much better financial shape than many European countries. That may be true. But whether or not we’ve avoided the excesses of other public pension systems has no bearing on the fact that our system faces a crisis of its own due to rising life expectancies and lengthening retirements.

If Harper deserves criticism for his recent trial balloon, it should be for excessive timidity. In his Davos remarks he sought to contain potential criticism by declaring the CPP off limits: “Fortunately, the Canada Pension Plan is fully funded, actuarially sound and does not need to be changed.” In truth, the plan is fully funded only for the next few years and will soon require a major re-evaluation. Relentless increases in longevity have just as big an impact on CPP as OAS. It makes little sense to adjust the retirement age upward for one program while protecting the notion of retirement at 65 elsewhere. The social norm needs to change.

Canada’s retirement system was never designed to cover several decades of freedom from work. While it may be politically expedient to argue that Canada’s retirement system should be protected from change of any kind, there are serious consequences to the status quo. If we allow retirement to grow longer and more lucrative, we rob the economy of productive workers, put a greater burden on the next generation and inevitably threaten the viability of every other social program in the country.

Of course, any changes to the retirement age must be gradual, transparent and fair. (Certainly nothing should disadvantage the elderly poor; the near elimination of seniors’ poverty is one of the great Canadian public policy success stories of the past few decades.) Denton and Spencer propose adding three months per year to the retirement age until it reaches 70. Alternatively, Sweden indexes its normal retirement age to life expectancy tables; as the Swedish lifespan lengthens, so too does time spent at work. Regardless of the process, however, something has to give. Retirement can’t last forever.

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