“Earlier retirement enriches us: in terms of leisure time”

Published on: 8 October 2020

Work until the age of 67 and then enjoy your retirement. Or could it be otherwise? A search for Plan P: innovative ideas and alternative scenarios to design your life, work and pension. A shift in the way we think for and by the young and the old.

Demographer Patrick Deboosere advocates for bringing down the pension age to 60 years old. “We grow older but are not getting healthier and fitter.”


Patrick Deboosere is 68 years old, but he is in no way thinking about retiring yet. He still is with heart and soul devoted to his position of demographer at the Free University of Brussels. “There lies my passion.” In the beginning of this year, the Belgian professor published his latest book: Lang leve de vergrijzing (Long live the ageing society, ed.). The growing number of older people is often presented as a problem, leading to an acute staffing deficit, higher pension costs and increasing healthcare costs. Deboosere prefers to turn this around, he considers ageing to be an achievement. “Isn’t it great that more people reach an older age than in the past? The social inequality is also reduced: thanks to better distributed prosperity, everybody is able to grow older.”  


Older, but not fitter

The tragedy, however, is that people are less able to enjoy the years gained because they have to work longer. In the Netherlands, the age for receiving a state pension rises to 66 and four months in 2020 and 2021, and in Belgium to the age of 67 in 2030. Deboosere advocates to lower the pension age to 60 years old. We grow older, but are not healthier and fitter, says Deboosere. Old age still comes with ailments. “After a lifetime of working hard, people should be able to retire when they are physically and mentally ready.” But surely our society is unable to afford those higher pension costs? That is a myth, according to Deboosere, who is happy to take down some more of those myths in both his book and during the conversation. 


Myth 1: Our lifespan rises    

Babies who are born today should reach an age of over one hundred years old. The demography shows differently, says Deboosere. “The lifespan of a human being is determined biologically-genetically. French Jeanne Calment reached the age of 122 and that record has not been broken in 23 years’ time. Our lifespan is therefore limited: the same as we won’t be able to run one hundred meters in five seconds.”


The human species is therefore not living longer, but we do have more older people. The collective life expectancy has risen: boys will live to an average age of 81 and girls to an age of 86. It was in particular the decrease of child mortality during the twentieth century that greatly contributed to the life expectancy. In the past decades we were also able to prevent premature death more often among adults and older people due to improved nutrition, healthcare, working conditions and, for example, road safety. Deboosere: “But it is becoming increasingly more difficult to realize progression as the greatest gain has meanwhile been booked.” This means the life expectancy will not become much higher than this. So, we don’t have to worry about a high number of people well over the age of 100 who have to be paid from the same pension pot.

Myth 2: We have to work longer in order to bear the pension costs    

That is not the case, says Deboosere. Admittedly, more people grow older but that can be compensated by means of our exponential economic growth. “We are getting more productive every year: we produce more with less labor. Robotics will increase that economic growth and, with that, the prosperity even more: in the seventies of the past century we had eighty cars per thousand inhabitants in Belgium, now we have 535. That number can be doubled in 35 years: one thousand cars per one thousand inhabitants. But is that what we want? We are dealing with a climate crisis and we are ready for a revaluation of leisure time.” It would be better for us to convert that economic growth into more sustainable production and consumption and into financing more leisure time, argues Deboosere. “In the past, people had to work until they dropped. Now that countries such as the Netherlands and Belgium are rich and developed, we, as civilians, should also become richer in time. But what do we do? We increase the pension age. Isn’t that peculiar?”

If people would be able to stop working at the age of sixty years old, the economy could actually get an extra boost because those people in their sixties will spend their money freely

Myth 3: Pensioners spend their time lazing and they all stay in Spain during the winter

Incorrect, according to Deboosere. “Pensioners often watch the grandchildren, take care of their own parents aged eighty years and older or work as volunteers. If that is no longer possible because they have to work longer, it only burdens society with higher costs.”


And there are more hidden social costs related to working longer, he warns. “If people are no longer able to persevere, they end up in the WIA (benefit for work and income according to capacity for work) scheme (former WAO) or they stop work prematurely without proper pension plan, resulting in a risk of poverty and having to apply for welfare.”


Myth 4: The pension pot is a bottomless pit

That is also not true, says Deboosere. If people would be able to stop working at the age of sixty years old, the economy could actually get an extra boost because those people in their sixties will spend their money freely. “That behavior ensures income for the baker, the hairdresser or the dentist. That collective capital generates much more return than the assets of the 1 percent super-rich who transfer their money to tax havens and not bring it back into the economy.”


If a higher tax burden would be applied to wealthy individuals and companies, the government can use those taxes to help finance the lower pension age, will pension funds be released sooner and therefore creates an economic driving force because of the increasing spending.   


Myth 5: The pension age is the same for everyone 

It is much easier for scientists such as himself, judges and artists to work longer, says Deboosere. But people with physical jobs, such as road workers, cleaning staff or factory employees are often physically drained after forty years work or more. Those people should be able to retire at the age of sixty. For people who want to continue work longer but are looking to slow down a bit, run-out jobs should be created, Deboosere suggests: work part-time, while retaining their pension accrual. “Don’t force everyone to descend the same summit but install several slopes.” However, the most important change shouldn’t take place in the pension system but in the way we think about prosperity versus well-being, Deboosere concludes: “The human being should become our starting point again.”