In France for the past three months, a million or more people have filled the streets of cities across the country in daily rolling protests and strikes opposing the national pension reform proposed by French president Emmanuel Macron. The plan would raise the age of eligibility for a government pension — in effect, the minimum retirement age — from 62 to 64. Although nearly two-thirds of the French people oppose this change and the French parliament did not have the votes to approve it, Macron unilaterally pushed it through. He claimed it was needed to respond to people living longer and the French government’s debt. Macron later narrowly avoided a no-confidence vote in the National Assembly, but protests continued by angry citizens.
In a story about a protest in the city of Metz, in northeastern France, not far from the German border, the French daily newspaper Le Monde quoted two workers from a nearby power plant run by the giant French electrical utility EDF. One explained why he was protesting: “I’ve been on shift work there for 31 years, so I’m pretty fed up.” Another said that “We work all year round in noise, heat, with risks from chemicals and radiation. We won’t let our best years of retirement be stolen.”
Debates over how much a person works for wages are not new. In the United States, the National Labor Union called for an eight-hour workday starting in 1866. It wasn’t until 1940 that an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act gave us the 40-hour work week standard. Of course, there remains consistent pressure from employers to work longer days and longer weeks, although some employers and workers are floating the idea of a four-day work week.
How much work goes into a day or week is one question about work. But perhaps an even greater — and more existential — question is how much work goes into a lifetime? For the French (who seem to love existential questions), the answer found on many protest signs has been “64 years. It’s a No.”
For many Americans, 64 seems like a perfectly fine answer. After all, when the U.S. raised its age for full Social Security benefits from 65 to 67 in 1983, there were no protests to mark the occasion. The rationale for the change was similar to France’s: the Social Security fund was projected to run low on money in the coming decades.
Perhaps people didn’t protest because the 1983 law phased in the two-year increase over 22 years. The people affected most were in their 20s and likely weren’t paying attention. Forty years later, those born in 1960 or after — the oldest of whom today are in their early 60s — are stuck with 67 as the age at which they can collect full social security benefits. If they retire earlier, say at 62, they’d receive only 70% of the full benefit. At 65, retirees get just 86.7% of the benefits they’d be eligible for if they kept working for two more years.
This all may sound very logical — as people live longer, they can work longer and hold off on receiving Social Security benefits they’ve paid into their whole working lives. But as the French protestors understand, working-class people often can’t stay on the job that long. And even if they could, they would have fewer years after their working lives to enjoy retirement.
People may live longer now, compared to decades ago, but it shouldn’t necessarily invite years of more work. A French study from 2021 found that postponing the retirement age results in more frequent and longer sick leave for older workers, “due to the gradual deterioration in the health status of workers at the end of their careers,” Le Monde reported.
It isn’t just the physical demands of many working-class jobs. It’s a class issue we can see if we look at the senior citizen country club set. As an extensive study by the Brookings Institution shows, “income is a strong predictor of life expectancy.”
The study explains the income effect in more detail, noting that “For example, 40-year-old men with incomes in the bottom 1% have an expected age at death of 72 years, while those with incomes in the top 1% have an expected age at death of 87 years — 15 years longer.” The pattern plays out for women, as well.
Working-class people are likelier to live shorter lives, and many have started working full-time earlier than their middle-class counterparts, so they work more years before reaching age 67 and receiving full benefits. Worse, they may need to continue working even after that to survive, since Social Security alone often isn’t sufficient. Meanwhile, wealthier people may start their work lives later and have more years to draw upon Social Security.
Like most U.S. institutions, though, the Social Security Administration ignores economic class structures. Its Life Expectancy Calculator will give you the “average number of additional years a person can expect to live,” but it sidesteps measures of socioeconomic class. It only vaguely acknowledges that “estimates of additional life expectancy do not take into account a wide number of factors such as current health, lifestyle, and family history that could increase or decrease life expectancy.”
Yet other government data make clear that class does matter — even more than “lifestyle.” One key class-based factor is access to work-based retirement plans. Wealthier Americans are significantly more likely than working-class people to have defined pension plans to supplement their retirement income. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 88% of workers earning the highest 25 percent of income had access to such plans, compared with only 42% of the lowest-paid workers.
Unlike the French, Americans aren’t taking to the streets to fight for a better retirement. But labor unions have done so. 91% of union workers have access to a retirement plan versus 65% of nonunion workers. Of course, we all know that union membership is far lower today than it was a few decades ago, helped by federal and state laws that have made organizing and bargaining harder.
Similarly, decades of assaults on public and private pension plans have left about 47% of men and 50% of women ages 55 to 66 with zero retirement savings. Another 11% of men and 13% of women have less than $25,000 in retirement savings. While some people continue full or part-time work because they enjoy the activity or the social setting, millions simply can’t afford to stop working.
That helps explain why we are seeing more older people in the U.S. labor force. In 2001, people 65 and older constituted just 3.1% of the workforce. By 2021 it was 6.6%, and the BLS projects it to be 9.1% by 2031. Labor force participation for people 65 and over with no disability has continued to grow since 1996, peaking at 26% in 2020, dropping off some due to Covid, and now climbing again to reach 23.6%. So if you think you’ve seen more retirement-age people serving your food, ringing up your purchases, or answering business phones, you are correct.
Businesses also like having more older people in the workforce. A contributor to Forbes essentially argued that they are a fearful population ready to exploit: “Many of them are scared and wondering how they will match an ever-smaller looking income with ever-growing consumer prices.”
We should expect more proposals to raise the retirement age in the future. Some Republicans have already called for raising the Social Security retirement age to 70 for people born in 1978 or after. But that’s not the only way to address the Social Security fund’s solvency. An alternative solution would reverse the policy that enables a growing percentage of high-level income to evade Social Security taxes.
Raising the retirement age isn’t just about having the “best years of retirement be stolen,” as French protesters have warned. It’s about fairness, too, and not putting years more of the nation’s labor burden on the working class. Next time the government moves to raise the retirement age, we should follow the French example to protest and proclaim, “It’s a No.”
A version of this story appears at Working-Class Perspectives.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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Christopher R. Martin is a professor of Digital Journalism in the Department of Communication and Media at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa.