Given that the financial and economic crisis has "aggravated and amplified" the impact of Europe's ticking demographic timebomb, experts consider the 'Green Paper' on pension reform being prepared by the European Commission to be an encouraging step towards an in-depth debate to align systems under pressure by crunched public finances.
While national governments will have the final say on pensions, the EU sees its role as relevant in the context of the portability of pensions. Commission President José Manuel Barroso has also made it clear that he sees pension reform as an important part of his new 'Europe 2020' strategy for sustainable growth (EurActiv 24/02/10).
'We will all need to work longer'
Anne-Sophie Parent, director of AGE, an NGO working for senior citizens' interests, told EurActiv that the green paper's "broad approach" struck the right tone, "hinting" at solutions that will inevitably entail a less comfortable situation for the next generation of EU retirees.
"We will all need to work longer" is the Commission's bottom line, she noted, praising how the document links better retirement ages to gains in life expectancy and establishes a closer link between contributions and pension benefits.
Adequacy risks – the proportion of an employee's net wage at retirement that remains in their annual pension – are going to increase for many workers, the paper argues. The Commission cautions that some EU countries have not reformed enough and urgently need to review their "pension promise".
Mooted solutions include a gradual transition to part-time work, an increase in the number of years of pension contributions, improved access to training and education, and improved access to the more flexible open labour markets of the future.
The EU's internal market could prove useful in providing additional sources of retirement income, such as reverse mortgages, and the paper notes that funded pension schemes - hit hard by the financial crisis – must be made more secure by reducing the risk of investments in pension funds.
Women hit hardest?
Despite specifically claiming that reforms are needed to secure the future retirement of both men and women, Anne-Sophie Parent argues that the proposals "are going to hit women much more than men" and that the result will be a much higher risk of poverty among older women. "We don't agree with the Commission that adequacy and sustainability are two sides of the same coin," she said.
"While we understand that if a pension system is unsustainable it will prove to be inadequate in the long run," the opposite is not true, she noted, adding that "it is a great pity that the green paper does not include a specific section on the gender dimension, despite the fact that the EU is supposed to mainstream gender issues in all its work".