Wednesday , October 17 2018
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The big bad pension scare.

Summary:
On Voxeu, Hervé Boulhol and Christian Geppert  published an article a about population ageing and pensions which tries to scare us: “on average in the OECD, stabilising the old-age dependency ratio between 2015 and 2050 requires an increase in retirement age of a stunning 8.4 years. This number far exceeds the projected increase in longevity and increases in retirement age driven by pension reforms alone.”. The pension age has to go up. But not for the reasons and by the amount they state. What’s wrong with their article? Their base line is wrong. They calculate a post 1980 dependency ratio (the number of young and old people per person in the working age) by using a 20 year and a 65 year threshold. During the 1980-2015 period, many people retired before 65 which means that the

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On Voxeu, Hervé Boulhol and Christian Geppert  published an article a about population ageing and pensions which tries to scare us: “on average in the OECD, stabilising the old-age dependency ratio between 2015 and 2050 requires an increase in retirement age of a stunning 8.4 years. This number far exceeds the projected increase in longevity and increases in retirement age driven by pension reforms alone.”. The pension age has to go up. But not for the reasons and by the amount they state. What’s wrong with their article?

  1. Their base line is wrong. They calculate a post 1980 dependency ratio (the number of young and old people per person in the working age) by using a 20 year and a 65 year threshold. During the 1980-2015 period, many people retired before 65 which means that the dependency ratio was higher than calculated in the article. Which in it turn mean that the rise of the dependency will be lower which means that less of an increase in the pension age is needed to stabilize it.
  2. As they admit in a footnote, they do not take changes in employment rates into account. Employment rates of people and especially women above 50 are rising spectacularly, which means that the dependency ratio per working person rises less than they calculate.
  3. Their assumptions about the rise of the pension age between today and 2050 is wrong. They assume an increase to 66,5 years of age. At present the pension age in many countries (Italy, Greece) is already while the pension age in the Netherlands and in 2050 even the German retirement age will be higher. This will lower future dependency ratio’s.
  4. In their world, unemployment does not exist. In countries like Spain, Italy and Greece total unemployment (including unemployment) is however around 25% while in a country like France it is close to 20%. Putting a large part of these people to work will solve a large part of the problem.
  5. They assume that pensions have to be paid using a ‘paygo’ system, i.e. by taxes. Surprisingly, they assume that only wage incomes will be taxed. One could however also tax capital income (or raise the labour share).
  6. If need be, people can start to work longer. A 4 hour increase of working weeks which are on average 32 hours leads to a 12,5% in total hours worked per person, which can also solve a part of the problem.
  7. Productivity can increase. A modest 0,5% increase of productivity per year between now and 2050 translates in a total rise of productivity of 17%. Together with an increase of hours of 12% this translates in a growth of production of 30% per working person.

The pension age has to go up – not so much because people get older but because of demographic reasons. There is a demographic problem caused by fertility rates which are far below the replacement rate.  Also, young people must have the time to care for the kids and in many countries the generation of these young people will be only half as large as the generation of the grandparents. Also, from a more socialist point of view, it is good when people keep working (which, however, does not necessarily has to be paid work). The increase of this problem is however not as large as indicated by the authors while our societies have much more untapped potential to solve it than the authors dear to dream.

Aside – I’ve been reading a bit about how many children people and especially women want. Look here and here. On average, they want more children than they get. Why this difference? ‘Life’? A relation with the ‘Incel’ phenomenon? Also, there is a (to me) surprisingly small amount of women who do not want children (between 2 and 4% in OECD countries with available data).

Merijn T. Knibbe
Economic historian, statistician, outdoor guide (coastal mudflats), father, teacher, blogger. Likes De Kift and El Greco. Favorite epoch 1890-1930.

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