The World Braces For Retirement Crisis

By David McHugh, Elaine Kurtenbach & Paul Wiseman

WASHINGTON (AP) - A global retirement crisis is bearing down on workers of all ages.

Spawned years before the Great Recession and the financial meltdown in 2008, the crisis was significantly worsened by those twin traumas. It will play out for decades, and its consequences will be far-reaching.

Many people will be forced to work well past the traditional retirement age of 65 - to 70 or even longer. Living standards will fall, and poverty rates will rise for the elderly in wealthy countries that built safety nets for seniors after World War II. In developing countries, people's rising expectations will be frustrated if governments can't afford retirement systems to replace the tradition of children caring for aging parents.

The problems are emerging as the generation born after World War II moves into retirement.

"The first wave of under-prepared workers is going to try to go into retirement and will find they can't afford to do so," says Norman Dreger, a retirement specialist in Frankfurt, Germany, who works for Mercer, a global consulting firm.

The crisis is a convergence of three factors:

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- Countries are slashing retirement benefits and raising the age to start collecting them. These countries are awash in debt after overspending last decade and racking up enormous deficits since the recession. Now, they face a demographics disaster as retirees live longer and falling birth rates mean there will be fewer workers to support them.

- Companies have eliminated traditional pension plans that cost employees nothing and guaranteed them a monthly check in retirement.

- Individuals spent freely and failed to save before the recession, and they saw much of their wealth disappear once it hit.

Those factors have been documented individually. What is less appreciated is their combined ferocity and their global scope.

"Most countries are not ready to meet what is sure to be one of the defining challenges of the 21st century," the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, concluded in a report this fall.

Mikio Fukushima, who is 52 and lives in Tokyo, is typical of those facing an uncertain retirement. Fukushima, who works in private investment, worries that he might have to move somewhere cheaper, maybe Malaysia, after age 70 to get by comfortably on income from his investments and a public pension of just $10,000 a year.

If he stayed in Japan, he says, "We wouldn't be able to travel at all."

People like Fukushima who are fretting over their retirement prospects stand in contrast to many who are already retired. Many workers were recipients of generous corporate pensions and government benefits that had yet to be cut.

Jean-Pierre Bigand, 66, retired Sept. 1, in time to enjoy all the perks of a retirement system in France that's now in peril. Bigand lives in the countryside outside the city of Rouen in Normandy. He has a second home in Provence. He's just taken a vacation on Oleron island off the Atlantic Coast and is planning a five-week trip to Guadeloupe. "Travel is our biggest expense," he says.

In Rochester, Minn., Elaine Case, 58, and her husband, Bill Wiktor, 61, both retired at 56 after three-decade careers at IBM. They have company pensions and will receive Social Security in a few years. They love to travel. Wiktor climbed Mount Kilimanjaro last year. They've taken a trans-Atlantic cruise and plan next year to hike Peru's Inca trail.

"We're both enjoying our second lives immensely and with gratitude," Case says.

A BRIEF GOLDEN AGE

The notion of extended, leisurely retirements, like the ones Bigand, Case and Wiktor are enjoying, is relatively new. German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck established the world's first state pension system in 1889. The United States introduced Social Security in 1935.

In the prosperous years after World War II, governments in rich countries expanded their pension systems. In addition, companies began to offer pensions that paid employees a guaranteed amount each month in retirement - so-called defined-benefit pensions.

It got even better in the 1980s. Many countries began to coax older employees out of the workforce to make way for the young. They did so by reducing the age employees became eligible for full government pension benefits. The age fell from 64.3 years in 1949 to 62.4 years in 1999 in the relatively wealthy countries that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

That created a new, and perhaps unrealistic, "concept of retirement as an extended period of leisure, " Mercer consultant Dreger says. "You'd take long vacations. That was the Golden Age."

Then came the 21st century.

UNDER SIEGE

As the 2000s dawned, governments - and companies - looked at actuarial tables and birth rates and decided they couldn't afford the pensions they'd promised.

People were living longer: The average man in 30 countries the OECD surveyed will live 19 years after retirement. That's up from 13 years in 1958, when many countries were devising their generous pension plans.

The OECD says the average retirement age would have to reach 66 or 67, from 63 now, to "maintain control of the cost of pensions" from longer lifespans.

Compounding the problem is that birth rates are falling just as the bulge of people born in developed countries after World War II retires.

Populations are aging rapidly as a result. The higher the percentage of older people, the harder it is for a country to finance its pension system because relatively fewer younger workers are paying taxes.

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