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Pensions in peril worldwide

Seniors face reduced retirement benefits, and many find they can't depend on their children

By Paul Wiseman, David McHugh and Elaine Kurtenbach

Associated Press

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A global retirement crisis is bearing down on workers of all ages.

Spawned years before the Great Recession and the financial meltdown in 2008, the crisis was significantly worsened by those twin traumas. It will play out for decades, and its consequences will be far-reaching.

Many people will be forced to work well past the traditional retirement age of 65 — to 70 or even longer. Living standards will fall, and poverty rates will rise for the elderly in wealthy countries that built safety nets for seniors after World War II. In developing countries, people's rising expectations will be frustrated if governments can't afford retirement systems to replace the tradition of children caring for aging parents.

The problems are emerging as the generation born after World War II moves into retirement.

"The first wave of underprepared workers is going to try to go into retirement and will find they can't afford to do so," says Norman Dreger, a retirement specialist in Frankfurt, Germany, who works for Mercer, a global consulting firm.

The crisis is a convergence of three factors:

» Countries are slashing retirement benefits and raising the age to start collecting them. These countries are awash in debt after overspending last decade and racking up enormous deficits since the recession. Now they face a demo­graph­ics disaster as retirees live longer and falling birthrates mean there will be fewer workers to support them.

» Companies have eliminated traditional pension plans that cost employees nothing and guaranteed them a monthly check in retirement.

» Individuals spent freely and failed to save before the recession, and they saw much of their wealth disappear once it hit.

Those factors have been documented individually. What is less appreciated is their combined ferocity and their global scope.

"Most countries are not ready to meet what is sure to be one of the defining challenges of the 21st century," the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, concluded in a report this fall.

Mikio Fukushima, who is 52 and lives in Tokyo, is typical of those facing an uncertain retirement. Fukushima, who works in private investment, worries that he might have to move somewhere cheaper, maybe Malaysia, after age 70 to get by comfortably on income from his investments and a public pension of just $10,000 a year.

If he stayed in Japan, he says, "We wouldn't be able to travel at all."

People like Fukushima who are fretting over their retirement prospects stand in contrast to many who are already retired. Many workers were recipients of generous corporate pensions and government benefits that had yet to be cut.

Jean-Pierre Bigand, 66, retired Sept. 1, in time to enjoy all the perks of a retirement system in France that's now in peril. Bigand lives in the countryside outside the city of Rouen in Normandy. He has a second home in Provence. He's just taken a vacation on Oleron island off the Atlantic Coast and is planning a five-week trip to Guadeloupe. "Travel is our biggest expense," he says.

In Rochester, Minn., Elaine Case, 58, and her husband, Bill Wiktor, 61, both retired at 56 after three-decade careers at IBM. They have company pensions and will receive Social Security in a few years. They love to travel. Wiktor climbed Mount Kilimanjaro last year. They've taken a trans-Atlantic cruise and plan next year to hike Peru's Inca trail.

"We're both enjoying our second lives immensely and with gratitude," Case says.

In Asia, workers are facing a retirement worry that is a byproduct of their astonishing economic growth.

Traditionally, Chinese and Koreans could expect their grown children to care for them as they aged. But newly prosperous young people increasingly want to live on their own. They also are more likely to move to distant cities to take jobs, leaving parents behind.

Yoo Tae-we, 47, a South Korean manager at a trading company that imports semiconductor components, doesn't expect his son to support him as he and his siblings did their parents. "We have to prepare for our own futures rather than depending on our children," he says.

South Korean public pensions pay an average of just $744 a month. South Korea has the rich world's highest poverty rate for seniors. It has one of the world's highest suicide rates for the aged, too.

China, too, will struggle to finance retirement. China pays generous pensions to civil servants and to urban workers who toiled in inefficient state-owned factories. These workers can retire early with full benefits — at 60 for men and 50 or 55 for women, depending on their job. Their pensions will prove to be a burden as China ages and each retiree is supported by contributions from fewer workers. Seniors are rapidly becoming a bigger share of China's population because of a policy begun in 1979 and only recently relaxed that limited couples to one child.

The World Bank says the cost of those pensions could eventually reach twice the size of China's annual gross domestic product. That would put the bill at more than $16 trillion.

China is considering raising its retirement ages. But the government would likely meet resistance. "I heard that the authorities might postpone the age of the retirement, but I sure hope not, since I've already worked for almost 42 years," says Dong Linhua, 59, a former Shanghai factory worker and now a real estate investor, who owns three apartments and two small shop spaces.






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