On Wednesday the French government said it will introduce legislation that will raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 by 2018. According to several news accounts, opposition socialist leaders and France's powerful union bosses immediately responded "non," saying that the retirement age was not negotiable.
In typical French fashion, strikes and street protests have been planned to try to get the government to water down reforms. France has one of the youngest retirement ages in the world. If you work for 40 years, you can claim a full pension at age 60. With rising life expectancy, the average Frenchman today can expect to live another 25 years supported by a generous social welfare system. But the debt crisis in Europe is threatening the euro and undermining the cherished European social model. Germany and Denmark have raised their retirement ages, and Britain is poised to do so as well.
Americans have a different view about government's role in providing for old age. They generally place more emphasis on the individual's responsibility and less on government. This difference prompted the great French observer Alexis de Tocqueville, who traveled to the United States in 1830, to call America "exceptional." By this, he didn't mean Americans were better than people in other countries, but qualitatively different. Survey data still support his prescient observation.
A series of polls done by Princeton Survey Research Associates in 1998 provide detailed international perspectives on the role of government at the beginning and end of life and illustrate American exceptionalism. I doubt that American attitudes on the subject have changed since, and other recent surveys suggest that the differences in American and European attitudes on the role of government are still strong and enduring.
The PSRA poll asked whether people "should feel entirely responsible for" a series of things or whether they "should expect the government to help" with them. Nearly six in 10 Americans said "people like them" should feel entirely responsible for saving enough money for retirement. Just 43% gave that response in France. Sixty-four percent of Americans said people like them should be entirely responsible for maintaining their standard of living in retirement; 53% of the French gave that response. Americans also felt greater responsibility than the French for providing for their children's needs, with 82% saying they should be entirely responsible for providing food, clothing and shelter for their children under age 18. Sixty-six percent gave this response in France.
A 2009 question posed by Harris Interactive and the Financial Times found that 56% of the French expected government to provide most of their retirement income, compared with 32% of the Americans. People were also asked whether the individual, the government or the employer should have the main responsibility to provide a secure income during retirement or whether all three should share the responsibility, and small majorities in France and the U.S. said it should be shared. But 32% of Americans said this should be an individual responsibility (compared with 4% of the French), while 32% of those surveyed in France said it should be the state's responsibility (compared with 8% for the U.S).
Americans also work longer hours and take less vacation than the French. (A French worker has a 35-hour work week and gets five weeks vacation.) In another question in the 2009 Harris poll, 61% of Americans, but only 46% of the French, said they would be willing to work beyond their country's current retirement age to receive a larger pension.
Despite their differences, governments on both sides of the Atlantic are facing similar challenges with aging populations, less-than-robust fertility and declining coffers for their social security systems. Like the French, Americans aren't eager to raise the retirement age. In a 2010 Greenberg/Tulane University poll, just four in 10 favored an incremental change, "allowing the Social Security retirement age for receiving full benefits to rise slowly to age 70 by 2020." But they are more disposed than the French to placing more responsibility on the individual.
But the French may soon have to make some concessions. President Sarkozy doesn't face the voters until 2012, and the retirement reforms won't go into effect fully until 2018. But whatever the outcome of the Sarkozy government's new retirement plan, the French are unlikely to escape Europe's new age of austerity and the fundamentally flawed European social model.
Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at AEI.