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A young French woman was asked why she felt justified in protesting the government’s plan to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 years. She replied, “Because we’re French and we do things differently.”

But then, that’s the problem. The French aren’t as different from the rest of the world as they’d like to think they are. They, like the Greeks and the rest of us, have to pay the piper. Wish though they might, there ain’t no free lunch.

The recognized retirement age in the United States stands at 65 years. Most European countries are similar: Britain-65 men, 60 women; Germany, Netherlands, Belgium-65; Austria 65 men, 62 women; Switzerland 65 men, 64 women, Norway and Denmark, 67. All of these countries are considering raising their retirement age in order to deal with deficit budgets.

Spanish citizens recently protested officials’ plans to raise their retirement age from 65 to 68 years. Greece made international news earlier this summer with riots protesting government budget cuts including changing their retirement age from 58 to 60 years. Italy bests them all with a retirement age of 57 years, 56 for manual workers.

This is all well and good, except someone must pay for the benefits being dispersed and, given global economic downturns, 35-40 years of pension contributions cannot now handle the expectation. So who pays?

The protesters would have us believe a) governments are stealing and/or hiding money, b) pension managers have mismanaged funds (which may to some extent be true because they aren’t infallible, but it’s not the root of the problem), c) the government can simply increase debt and take care of the challenge for now, or d) if you live in America, increase taxes.

Some of the French I’ve heard interviewed act as if an early retirement age is a birthright intrinsically French, that it’s been around forever and how dare anyone suggest anything different. But the French 60-year retirement age was adopted in 1982 by the socialistic government of Francois Mitterrand. His legacy is an indebted, burdened society.

Of course increasing debt or continuing unfunded benefits simply passes along the cost to pension-holders’ children and grandchildren.

The French think they’re different, but they have to pay for services rendered too. They, and many Americans, want to live beyond their means, which translates to live off the next generation. If we don’t change the path we’re on our legacy will be an indebted, burdened, possibly backward future for our grandchildren.

Retirement is not immoral, but it’s neither a biblical mandate nor an ideal. If you can afford it, more power to you. But the operative word is “afford.” If you or we can’t afford it and we forge ahead anyway we’ve got our heads buried in the sand. The French seem to be walking the beach ahead of us.


© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2010

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