Retirement: Have you given it a thought?
A version of this slogan was aired on TV ads by La Financière de l’Echiquier for a few seasons and is now back as a burning issue with the package of reforms about to be introduced. After more than 20 years of indecision, the French government has decided to start by tackling one of the biggest hurdles: transforming and adapting the special pension regimes (“régimes spéciaux“), and in particular that of the SNCF, France’s national railway company and its rail workers… An issue that will inevitably fuel street protests and heated conversations in the weeks ahead.
Popular protests on the subject of retirement are not reserved to France. It is a recurrent phenomena in countries in southern Europe, for example, during election periods, as recently in Italy, or as exemplified by the persistent calls from Spanish, Greek or Italian pensioners for measures to increase their purchasing power from governments that no longer have the resources to meet their demands.
In other words, while everyone is thinking about retirement, it no longer offers the promise for better life as the builders of our system of intergenerational solidarity initially envisaged. Retirement is now a source of anxiety and no longer a promise for happiness.
In English, retirement in a professional context can sometimes convey the meaning of retiring from an activity in the sense of stepping aside. In France, the concepts conveyed by the word “retraite” are more blurred, evoking at the same time notions of strategic retreat, a spiritual retreat or a form of a safe haven. Each person will according to their own education and itinerary choose their own meaning. The challenge before us today is the collective effort required to help us live our life after we stop working.
Shouldn’t we for that reason first clarify this latter point instead of trying to implement a reform in a piecemeal fashion? What are the foundations of our retirement system?
Today our system is still based on the principles established just after the Second World War; The French decree of 4 October 1945 stated that it was necessary to “eliminate the uncertainty of workers about tomorrow which creates a sentiment of inferiority, the true and deep-rooted cause for the distinction between the classes“, whereas in the preamble of the 1946 Constitutions it is written: “Any individual who, because of his or her age, his or her physical or mental condition, or because of the economic situation, shall find himself or herself unable to work, shall have the right to obtain from the community the means for a decent existence“. Generous ambitions reflecting the hopes of a generation that survived a devastating conflict and would continue to survive for several decades between two radically different political-economic systems.
This humanistic generosity that for more than 30 years has been challenged by demographic trends and mass unemployment, has not been revisited in the name of these post-war political principles which no government in power has yet had the courage to address. France is thus, along with Greece, the only country in Europe that has not yet implemented structural reforms in the last 20 years…
“It is no use saying, ‘We are doing our best’. You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary“. Let us hope that the pragmatic wisdom of Sir Winston Churchill will finally inspire our community. Beating a retreat is no longer an option. It is urgent to call into question the “French exception” which alone continues to provide the excuse for not opening up the subject of reforming the Welfare State.
And if the subject of retirement became everyone’s concern? The only viable path is individual accountability, especially for the younger generations already asking how they will live on Mars… Let us accept to take charge of our own responsibilities, with an alternative savings retirement system, an individual pension plan accessible to the greatest number… Stay tuned.
Didier Le Menestrel
1 Retraite, Bâtissons notre avenir !, Cherche Midi, 2015