The end of early retirement?

The French government announced today that it will raise the country's retirement age from 60 to 62, a move likely to be fiercely resisted by French labor unions. The retirement age was already one of the lowest in Europe and economists have long pushed for it to be raised. They aren't the only ones. As part of its ongoing austerity measures, Greece's government is pushing to raise its retirement age from 61-63.

Of course, the legal pension age is only part of the problem. As this chart from the OECD shows, if you look at when the average worker actually retires, the French are calling it quits earlier than any other developed country: 

 Moves like France's and Greece's are simply inevitable given how long people are living today. By some estimates, bore than half the babies born in France and other developed countries since 2000 will live to the age of 100, and having them out of the work force for half of that time simply won't work economically. 

So are we simply doomed to a long, dull life of endless drudgery? Perhaps not. In a recent article published in the Lancet, a group of demographers suggested some ways that our ideas about work could be transformed to better fit modern lifespans. I wrote about some of them in the most recent print issue of FP

Raising the retirement age will be a necessary first step, the researchers suggest. This carries some risks, not least of which is what the report's lead author, Kaare Christensen of the Danish Aging Research Center, calls the "Prince Charles problem." Just as Charles has spent a lifetime as king-in-waiting behind his now-octogenarian mother, Christensen foresees a bottleneck of older workers preventing younger employees from advancing until their own golden years. One solution is to change the way careers are structured over time, by creating part-time, semiretired positions for seniors and perhaps even allowing workers to put in fewer hours during the years when they're raising children. "Most people have an enormous amount of work between age 20 and 40," Christensen says. "Why not postpone it until you're older and the kids don't want to see you anyway?"

 Perhaps something for Nicolas Sarkozy's government to consider as it faces down the inevitable crippling strikes.



The other big presidential speech last night

Right around the time that Barack Obama was giving his prime time address to the nation, his counterpoint in Mexico, Felipe Calderon, was doing the same thing. The subjects were different, but the political stakes for both countries were equally high. While Obama talked about doing battle against the BP oil spill in the Gulf -- to "fight this spill with everything we’ve got," Calderon was talking about a far less metaphorical war: Against the country's drug cartels. The fate of both presidencies may well rest on their respective battlegrounds.

The drug war launched by Calderon's administration has been much analyzed, criticized, and picked apart for its efficacy, the wisdom of its undertaking, and the care with which it has been carried out. The criticisms are many: That the effort has made things worse, exacerbated social tensions, unleashed a human rights-violating military against the Mexican people, and all done little to stop the trafficking. (He addressed all these critiques in his speech to the nation.)

But no matter your opinion of how things have gone so far, it's hard to argue for the alternative of accommodation with the drug lords, something that persisted prior to Calderon's term. He clearly doesn't see that as an option either: "We have fought with force and determination against these criminal organziations. And we, the Federal Government, have done so not only because it is our obligation, but also because what hinges upon this fight is your well-being and the future of our children." (my translation).

The speech was notable for two other reasons, one rhetorical and one political. First, Calderon took a page from Obama's book by using the first half of his speech to explain how Mexico arrived at this point -- reminding listeners that, by the time he entered office, things were already a mess. This has been a tactic employed by Obama often on the economy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he has reminded voters that these crises was not of his making. And so did Calderon: "It would have been easy to ignore this problem, as some have proposed, but it is the responsibility of the government to protect its people."

The second bit of note for an American audience was Calderon's clear linking of the escalation of Mexico's drug woes to the lifting of a U.S. ban on the sale of assault weapons in 2004. (Indeed, weapons sales over the border have grown into big business in recent years, arming cartels with more and better guns.) This issue has been a sticking point in relationship between Washington and Mexico City -- Calderon pleaded for the ban to  be re-established ban during his address to a joint-session of Congress last month.

Both speeches were more about convincing people than laying out concrete steps, but in many ways, that's the point. Calderon was explicit: "With your support, we will succeed." The negative is also true... Without it, Mexico won't.