Monday, February 13, 2012

Respect our elders: stop this blather about pension time bombs

Pension time bomb. We have been warned about one so often that I often lie awake terrified by the prospect of a mass combustion of people with white hair. I can no longer walk past the communal gardens beside my house because the senior citizens tending to them look far too menacing.

Let’s get a grip here. Medical advances and maybe some other factors have caused life expectancy to increase. Shouldn’t that be a cause for celebration? Yet instead of respecting our elders, as I was taught to do as a child, we are treating them as a burden that society cannot bear.

In the coming days, the European Commission is scheduled to publish a paper recommending that retirement ages should be raised and that the possibility of retiring early should be restricted. The paper will stress that the EU executive is not trying to muscle into an area of policy-making traditionally undertaken by national governments. Nobody should be fooled by those assurances; the EU executive is determined to acquire new powers for itself by whatever means it can.

Using the new role as inspector of the budgets of individual EU countries that it has performed over the past two years, the Commission has advocated wielding a machete towards pension schemes across the Union. The “technocrats” who have effectively mounted coups in Italy and Greece appear happy to oblige.

Drive to dismantle welfare states

This is not simply a matter of requiring workers to stay in jobs an extra few years for the greater good. It is part of a drive to dismantle welfare states and to make Europe almost indistinguishable from the United States. The real intention of our political masters is to let selfishness triumph over solidarity.

Increased life expectancy, as I have already stated, is a marvellous thing. Yet income remains a key determinant of how long you live. About one out of every five older people in the EU is at risk of poverty. The poor are statistically more likely to die earlier than the wealthy. How disgusting, then, that the comfort offered to the disadvantaged in their final years is being reduced as a result of extreme economic prescriptions written in Brussels.

Women will be the worst affected by the demolition derby. In France, women’s pensions are on average 38% lower than those of men. Women teachers across Europe are paid between 14% and 19% less than their male colleagues, according to a 2009 study by the organisation Education International. As pensions are usually based on a proportion of end-of-career wages, female teachers receive far smaller pensions than men when they retire.

Thatcher-inspired extremism

A strong hint about the real agenda being pursued was dropped by Charlie McCreevy when he was the EU’s commissioner for the single market in 2005. “One of my main tasks over the coming years will be to ensure that the European regulatory framework for financial services supports the emergence of secure market-driven responses to retirement financing,” he said.

Though his words sound technical, his ploy was intensely political. McCreevy was intent on enabling the private sector to take over responsibility for public affairs. Under his Thatcher-inspired vision, good pensions were not something to which everyone should be entitled. They were to be determined by market forces.

The game he played proved ruinous. McCreevy stubbornly refused to introduce proper oversight of hedge fund managers and the other out-of-control gamblers whose reckless behaviour contributed massively to the current financial crisis.

The financial alchemists that he accommodated continue to lord it over the rest of us. In November last year, the European Central Bank stated that “insurers and pension funds with 1.1 trillion euros invested, hold almost 20% of the debt securities issued by euro area governments, which make them an important provider of governments’ funding”. There is only one way I can interpret this message: it is markets, not elected governments, which call the shots.

Perhaps the most offensive aspect of this drive is the way politicians behind it claim they are acting in the best interests of older people. “Active ageing seeks to promote better opportunities for older people on the labour market through accessible workplaces and age friendly working conditions and allow them to achieve an adequate income in old age,” László Andor, the EU’s social policy commissioner, said recently, while maintaining that the welfare systems now in place are unsustainable.

Many of us have friends or acquaintances over 50 who have been rejected for jobs solely because the employers wanted to hire someone younger. This indicates that there is a bias against hiring people in the 50 to 65 year age bracket. If Andor thinks that raising the retirement age will get rid of prejudice in recruitment, then he is not living in the real world.

Despite their rampant ageism, employers are using blackmail to demand an assault on pensions. Jorgen Ronnest from the pressure group BusinessEurope warned in November that if the “demographic challenge” isn’t faced “companies will be forced to relocate their business to other continents due to serious shortages on our labour markets”. The threat of quitting Europe is one of corporate bullies’ favourite tactics.

In recent months and years, we have seen strikes in France and Belgium over moves to slash pensions. Right-wing pundits have slandered the strikers, by portraying them as layabouts. Far from being lazy, the strikers are fighting valiantly to preserve the few remaining decencies in Europe.

●First published by New Europe, 12-18 February 2012.

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