50 plus: To retire or not to retire?

Most industrialized nations encounter the same phenomena:  Their citizens live longer. But do they also work longer?

In the last 150 years, the average human lifespan has been extended by about three months each year. In Germany the average life expectancy meanwhile is 81 years for women and 74 years for men.

Not only are people getting older, they are aging in much better health and with an interest in staying longer active and involved in all aspects of life.

The freedom to make one’s own choices regarding work and retirement is surely a reflection of the fundamental values of society and culture. The lengthening of lifespan, improvements in healthcare, changes in education, and opportunities for an active life in retirement are developments that each society must come to grips with – developments that each society must constantly adapt to and evolve with.

As in most other industrialized nations, in Germany the discussion regarding increasing entrance age for retirement benefits from 65 to 67 years, has been in the forefront during recent years.

However, in Germany the discussion is not based on the wishes or the needs of those individuals who will reach retirement age in the near future.  It is based on the society’s quest for full employment for the young. And, of course, as in the United States, the discussion reflects the need for – and the means for – financing retirement for present and future generations.

This question must be raised, however: What is the point of arguing whether the retirement age should be 65 or 67, considering that large corporations, such as Volkswagen as an example, have for decades used a strategy to entice employees into early retirement? They have attempted to “make room” for their young apprentices.  And, as a result of such strategies, the “real-life” average retirement age in Germany has been just under 60 years.

The reality is that one of every two companies in Germany has no employees older than 50 years (according to IAB), and not too long ago more than 1.6 million people over the age of 50 were listed as unemployed (according to BA).

And, while companies and recruiting firms in the United States face stiff legal penalties for questions referring to applicants’ age, and for making negative remarks relative to the age of candidates, only a few years ago a partner at one of Germany’s largest recruiting firm publicly warned that it would be, “Very negative in regard to Germany’s competitiveness,” to have older people working.  “Often they are not able to cope with the stress and physical demands of work anymore,” according to FAZ, Nov. 13, 2002.

This is very different than attitudes in the US.  Newspapers asked the owner of a restaurant if it was not too much for his 80-year-old waitress to continue working. His answer was a reflection of the American understanding that retirement is in large part an individual choice, and that each person is as old as he or she feels: “As long as she can take the stairs to the second floor of the restaurant and she wants to do the job, she is young enough,” he said.

Egon L. Lacher, Managing Partner/Miami