We all know, or have been told by Emily in Paris, that the French work to live, rather than live to work. So it isn’t surprising that a proposal by President Emmanuel Macron’s government to gradually raise the retirement age to 62 from 60 has brought people out into the streets and has shut down most rail travel (not just trains between cities but also the Paris Métro).
To be clear, the increase would be spread out, rising by a three months at a time until it hits 64. So somebody who now is 62 can still retire at 62. It won’t be until 2030 that you can’t retire until 64. Also, you have to have paid in for 43 years instead of 40. There are exceptions for those who started working in their teens, who can retire at 58 or 60. There’s also an increase in the amount of the minimum pension to 85% of the minimum wage, or 1200€ a month. And lots more details. Criticism, aside from “I want to retire as soon as possible with as much money as possible,” includes that the reform doesn’t adequately account for time women take off to caregiving for children and elderly parents; that it doesn’t raise the amount workers contribute (some critics say high-salary workers should pay more to help out); that it doesn’t reduce the amount the highest-paid retirees receive–measures that could help balance the books without raising the retirement age.
Balancing the books is the raison d’être for the reform. The system is currently in the red because people are living longer (life expectancy at birth is 82, among the world’s highest), the birth rate is 1.8 kids per female, the lowest since 1946, resulting in more retirees being supported by fewer workers. That’s also because there are no 401(k)s in France–the system is still based on defined benefits (traditional pensions) and not defined contributions. At the same time, it’s more like Social Security in the U.S., insofar as your pension comes from various public or sectoral funds and not from your employer. So, unlike traditional pensions in the U.S., your pension follows you from job to job, and if your company goes under, like Enron did, you still get a pension. And there’s no expecting average individuals to be investment experts who may either take too many risks and lose what they’d set aside or not take enough risk and have returns eaten up by inflation. The median balance for a 401(k) at Vanguard is $58,035–not enough to support someone into their 80s.
I know a few people here who get more in retirement than they did when working. In fact, unlike in many countries, the average French retiree is better off than the average French worker. The poverty rate of retirees is 9%, compared with 15% for the rest of the population. One economist I heard attributed it not only to decent pensions but also to the rise in real estate prices. Those who bought homes or rental properties early in Les Trentes Glorieuses–the three decades of robust economic growth between 1945 and 1975–saw the most benefit, but also anybody who bought before 1995 has seen real estate values explode (and if you follow the link, note that you can see the evolution of real estate prices from 1200 to 2022 in Paris. Yes, the year 1200. I love France.). Rental income probably accounts for the difference between the average monthly pension of 1544€ in 2019 and the average standard of living of 2132€.
Many times I have heard French friends and others refer to retirement as les grandes vacances–the big vacation. It’s something they earned. People say, “moi, j’ai bien cotisé!” (I paid in my share). That’s true, but they were paying their share into a system that had been twisted without regard to the future. In defined-benefit systems, you pay for the people currently retired–you aren’t paying into a compartmentalized account for yourself later. Back in 1983, the government lowered the retirement age to 60 from 65, which it had been since 1945. The reason was that Baby Boomer workers were filling up the coffers. Rather than invest the money for after the Baby Boom left work, the government of François Mitterrand took the extremely popular step of lowering the retirement age.
In very broad strokes, here’s the evolution. In 1993, a reform by Édouard Balladur required workers in the private sector to pay into the system longer–40 years instead of 37.5 years, without raising the retirement age, so people who started working before age 20 would still be able to retire by 60 while those who started working later would have to wait until they had completed 40 years of work to retire. In 1995, Prime Minister Alain Juppé wanted to extend that to public sector employees. This was met with big protests. In 2003, François Fillon managed to get that through, with plenty of exceptions and smaller protests. In 2011, the government of Nicholas Sarkozy (the law is named after Minister of Work, Solidarity and Public Function Éric Woerth) raised the general retirement age to 62 from 60. That brought out the most protesters (estimated at 3.5 million nationwide by the unions and at 1.2 million by the government).
I should add that French retirement, like French verb conjugation, is riddled with exceptions. There are 37 retirement regimes, of which 15 are special regimes covering 3.4% of the population and allowing full retirement before age 60. The jobs covered include mines, the national railway, personnel of the National Opera of Paris, gas and electricity, and notaries. A friend was a receptionist for a notary. Between that and having three kids (in the private sector, you get two years of retirement per kid), she was able to fully retire in her early 50s. That’s just nuts. At the railway company, conductors can retire at 50 years and eight months of age. Working on a train used to be difficult, dirty and dangerous, but it isn’t anymore.
There are many jobs that aren’t for older people. Bad backs, bad knees, a lifetime of minor or major accidents, overexertions and illnesses make some kinds of work impossible. People age differently, too. Of two friends, both at 75, one was at the gym daily and went for daylong hikes in the Black Mountains a couple of times a week while the other was diabetic and had serious heart trouble. Ironically, it’s the latter who still works–he’s an author.
Over the weekend, I was a volunteer with the International Festival of Political Film here in Carcassonne. The volunteer pool was polarized between very young and very old. Hardly anybody between the ages of 30 and 50. One of the films was “Ruthless Times–Songs of Care,” about nursing homes in Finland. After the film, I sat at a table with some other volunteers, all of them retired, and we talked about the film and about retirement. Only one was relieved to be retired. The others said they missed working, for the social connections most of all but also for the purpose and structure it gave their lives. One had been laid off and never managed to find another job. The Carnivore was laid off at age 55 and despite incessant applications never found another job. When one prospect looked optimistic, he was overjoyed. “I’m not useless,” he said after the interview went well, and then he collapsed in my arms sobbing. I knew he was upset about not working, but I hadn’t realized it weighed on him to that point.
Sadly, age discrimination is alive and well in France. Job applications are through online forms, which won’t let you proceed without filling in the date you graduated from university–something that gives away your age. You’re no longer expected to put your birth date and marital status on your curriculum vitae, but most examples include a photo. Companies want to hire someone with some experience, but not too much–i.e., younger than age 45. Anybody older is considered a dinosaur who can’t use technology. Or, probably more accurately, someone who will push back against requests for long days, weekend work and 24/7 availability for answering emails (it’s just an email! be a team player!). I heard an economist say that there’s a labor shortage, so older workers should be able to find jobs, but I have big doubts. “Knowledge” jobs for highly educated people, or high-skilled jobs for those with specialized experience seem to be the hardest ones to get if you’re older even though they’re the jobs older people are most able to continue to perform.
Older workers want the same thing as millennials and Gen Z: interesting work, reasonable and flexible hours, fair pay. I wish that the land of working to live could set an example of a more humane work environment that allows more people to work longer–that allows more people to work, period.
I got a glimpse Thursday afternoon of the protest parade in Carcassonne, and later I heard a loud boom that somebody set off. According to the unions, more than two million people protested; according to the government it was 1.2 million. Round two of the strikes is scheduled for Jan. 31. If you want to follow the news in French, here are some suggestions:
Hugo Décrypte: I listen to the podcast, but the link is to his YouTube channel. Incredibly popular summary of the news in 10 minutes every day. In French.
C dans l’air: The name plays on “it’s in the air” or what people are talking about. This is a nightly TV news show that goes in depth about one topic per episode, speaking with a panel of three or four experts. Again, it exists as a podcast (and the “on the street” segments are a little annoying without video). In French.
L’Esprit Public: a weekly radio program/podcast that explores a topic, sometimes more, in depth with several experts. No “man on the street” blah blah. Very thoughtful, even intellectual. In French.
Talking France: a weekly podcast about France aimed at expats. In English.
What do you think? Are you retired and relieved to be done with all that? Would you have liked to continue working part-time? Were you pushed out too early? Are you too young to retire and unable to get hired? Do you feel set for retirement?
16 thoughts on “Take This Job and …”
I am 66, will turn 67 in Aug. Live in US, still working 32 hours a week. I am a partner in a manufacturing firm. I like working. I have worked so many years that I don’t know what I would do if I wasn’t working. It gives me purpose and a place to interact. Retirement is overrated. I have plenty of time to cook, garden, etc. all the things that I enjoy. I have traveled and I have the means to do it, but again I think it is a hyped activity. It is all a dog chasing its tail.
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Something between 20-35 hours a week seems ideal. Enough to be engaged but also enough time for life. Congrats to you!
I am counting the days until I turn 65 and can get Medicare and retire! I have paid into Medicare and Social Security my whole life, and resent when it’s referred to as an “entitlement”. I really like my job and the people I work with, but I would have LOVED to be able to retire at 60, even though my job is not physically taxing. I leave the house at 7:30 am and get home at 5:30 pm, 5 days a week. I feel like I have NO time to do anything I want to. I am envious whenever I read of the vacation, retirement and health benefits of Europeans.
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It’s an entitlement because the criteria to qualify are the same for everyone—you don’t have to prove you have a certain income or other qualification.
Another expert I heard today said that what bothers workers most is the lack of respect.
When you refer to “the retirement age” in France, does that mean the age at which retirement is mandatory, or simply allowed?
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It’s when you can take full retirement.
I feel fortunate to have retired at 64. An age that I chose, when I felt financially able. I always believed that I could plan my day better than my employer planned my day for me. Je ne regrette rien! I love retirement! That said, no one who wants to work should be denied the opportunity.
In the US, our voluntary 401Ks supplement our Social Security and/or pensions. They are not run by the government but you do get a tax break by not having to pay income tax on the money put into your 401K. In 2023, if you are over 50 y/o, you can put up to $30,000 untaxed income into your 401K. For a married couple, $60,000 per year grows that nest egg pretty quickly while reducing your taxable income.
Bravo to France for tackling this enormous, messy problem. Hopefully they will address some of the more obvious loopholes and issues…beginning with age discrimination. I’ll be following along on some of the news links you’ve listed. Thanks for those!
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France has tax-advantaged accounts similar to IRAs, but no 401(k) that employers match. The problem with investing is that too many people don’t know anything about it. It’s a job for professionals, not individuals. Somebody who earns minimum wage doesn’t even make $30k in a year much less have that much to save.
I hope people don’t get discouraged from investing in their 401Ks by hearing, “it’s a job for professionals, not individuals”. Every employer is different: mine offered 11 different diversified funds. It was easy peasy picking one that matched my risk tolerance/projected retirement year. It’s not like you’re picking individual stocks.
Google ‘401k performance over the last 10 years’, last 20 years. They are good investments to put as much of your available income into as you are able. Even with my employer’s zero matching contributions.
And yes, it sucks that some people work for minimum wages. I’m willing to bet that the folks wanting to stay in the work force beyond retirement age are not working for minimum wages, nor are they in physically demanding jobs. They are fortunate. In a perfect world everyone would end up enjoying the retirement that they want and deserve.
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It sounds like you had a good employer. They don’t all offer as many choices, and many small businesses don’t offer anything at all.
I was talking with a relative last night who said that anybody who worked minimum wage deserved all the misery they got, that defined-benefit pensions are bad (he has one) because your kids can’t inherit them (though another of our relatives has run out of money and is in a nursing home on Medicaid–people do run out of money), and that people should all save individually for retirement and if you don’t/can’t then you don’t/can’t retire. Zero empathy. I didn’t ask, but I bet he’s for eliminating Social Security–he doesn’t need it and he only cares about paying lower taxes. But in France the debate is about changing the system to make it more just and sustainable–raising the lowest pensions, accounting for the hardship of some kinds of work, asking more of those who have it easier. Not everybody agrees on the details or wants to give up their advantages, but the idea of each man for himself is out of the question, too.
Very interesting to read, thank you! I am 49 working as a teacher on the Canadian west coast. When our full retirement age was changed to 67 about ten years ago I don’t remember any pushback – it was just necessary. I love my work but find it an “all or nothing” kind of employment… ten months a year of very long tiring days and two months to cram in all the things you can’t do when working 50 hours a week. The balance is off. My husband and children are European citizens and I like to imagine that we might move to Italy or France permanently (because I love it and am tired of rushed summer vacations during heat waves) but the paper work and politics overwhelm me. Lots to think about!
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I was talking to friends today about retirement—they’re retired but the husband still helps his daughter’s business and the wife talked about missing work but not regretting getting away from the lack of flexibility. They both thought part-time would be ideal at the end of a career.
If your husband and kids are European, then the paperwork is far easier for moving here….
I’m currently trying to figure out how to live in France and get a job that I’ve been doing for 26 years, fixing medical equipment. In US I work in a hospital’s Biomedical Dept. I have no idea what it’s called in France. I thought if there is such a shortage of Biomeds in US maybe there too. I’m even trained to do maintenance on ventilators and would hope that might be needed there. I’m not having any luck finding out anything.
But I’ll keep learning my French.
They say the definition of luck is preparation meets opportunity. Fingers crossed…
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Good luck. I have no idea how you can make the move, but if you find a way to get employed with a biomedical company, you might be able to get transferred to France. I’m sure you could find work at a hospital here; the question is whether you can get a work permit. I think (not sure) the one-year carte de séjour doesn’t allow work; it’s when you get a 10-year carte de séjour that you can work. So your employer might have to sponsor your work permit. You’re in a field with a lot of demand, so that might work out.
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I will be 62 next month. I worked for over 30 years in the managed care division of medical insurance. Insurance is bought directly or provided through your employers in America. Corporate America changes leadership like some change their underwear. I never met my new boss she was on the west coast in California. She did not know anything about my skill set and wasn’t interested in learning what I could and had accomplished. I was making very good money, laid off as they can hire two for the price of me. Broke my heart. I decided to start over in another industry as I was tired of the managed care nightmare. I have been enrolled in a paralegal program at a local highly regarded college. I already have a Master’s Degree in Business, but it isn’t enough anymore and I received that degree in 1999, so isn’t valued any longer. It is devastating to be judged for my age and not given a chance to prove all I can do.
I am excited but nervous to be beginning again. I graduate with the certificate in March. Will be starting at the bottom and less than half the previous salary.
I know will work out. We are a resilient folk. I am not eligible for full retirement benefits until I am 70 years old.
Praying I will be able to go to France again. Thank you for listening and I wish you all great health and a happy life. God bless from Texas.
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I’m so sorry you’re going through this, but wow, I understand! Actually, most employers self-insure–it’s a big accounting boon; the insurance companies are just there to administer the employer programs. Employers aren’t supposed to know about employees’ health issues, but they have a direct financial interest in not having anybody with big medical bills on the payroll. Good for you for getting new skills, and whoever hires you will be lucky to have you!