Rethinking Retirement: Why Seniors Can And Must Keep Working

A heated national debate in Germany over raising the retirement age is posing the wrong questions. A German writer in the U.S. sees a different solution.

Rolling on
Rolling on
Jochen Arntz


SAN FRANCISCO — In the Natural History Museum in the California Academy of Sciences, one can learn a great deal about the Earth, the Solar System and the creation of the Universe. But we can also learn a lot about the way Americans organize their lives.

On a subterranean level of the San Francisco museum, a retiree named Steve is showing some children how they can pet star fish and what that teaches them about nature. Steve comes to the museum a couple of times a week, as a volunteer, because he thinks it’s a way of giving something back to society.

A few miles away, a retired lawyer is helping organize the community’s voting register. Why? Because she too wants to give something back to society — now that she finally has time, and while she still can.

Anybody who sees the elderly lady, or the man in the museum, is getting a glimpse at the future of our society, best-case scenario. In the U.S. there is a tradition of retirees working as volunteers in museums, foundations, and the community.

That's not the case in Germany. What’s all the more surprising is that Americans get a lot less state benefits, so would seemingly have fewer reasons to give society anything when they are older.

Germany is in the midst of a passionate national debate about how long people should work before they are entitled to receive their pensions — whether they should retire at 65 or at 67.

An idle bike in Bonn. Photo: iurikothe

Slowly the generation of those who are going to have to work until 67, those born in 1964 and later, are coming to realize that the real issue at stake is something else. Life in old age is going to change fundamentally, no ifs, ands and buts about it. Never were more babies born in Germany than during the mid-1960s. But these people had far fewer children than their parents, and their life expectancy is far higher.

That means that by the middle of this century, more than one-third of Germans will be over 65 years of age. And that mainly means that the generational contract as it presently stands won’t work anymore. Not economically, and not socially.

This is in part because fewer young people will have to earn pensions for ever more older citizens. But it's also because today’s and tomorrow’s retirees, thank God, will grow much older than their ancestors.

A battle for 2 or 20?

It comes as a surprise, therefore, that in the debates about retirement age, two statistics are rarely considered together: in the post-War years, life expectancy of Germans has risen by more than 10 years, yet a measly two years is bitterly fought over when it comes to retirement age.

In the future, when people live even longer, this discrepancy will stand out more because many German retirees are going to be enjoying 20 years of retirement. Can a society afford for so many of its members to be subsidized for 20 years? No, it cannot.

The classic retirement model gave people exhausted from a long working life the guarantee of a few peaceful years at the end of their lives. But already today many retirees are in very good mental and physical condition for a good two decades after they stop working, and some don’t want to give up their work.

We are now back with Steve in San Francisco. Without people like him, a lot of things in the U.S. wouldn’t function. Museums would close. There would be less remedial teaching for children. Truth be told, aging Germany isn’t going to function either without such people. Many Germans will also have to work later in life for purely financial reasons: they’re not going to be able to manage on pensions alone.

Most people around 50 today don’t appear to realize that. Many can’t even imagine that when they reach their mid-60s they’re going to have to drop doing work they may very much still enjoy. And since they know that their life expectancy is markedly higher than that of their parents, they devote some thought to the advantages they and society could get out of this.

Given that working into their 70s is a real possibility, couldn’t they work less between the ages of 30 and 40 in order to have more time with their families? Wouldn’t the higher life expectancy be better used by balancing out working far too hard when young, and possibly having far too much time on their hands between 65 and 85? Isn’t that the more salient debate — not the one about whether retirement age should be at 65 or 67?

And even if retirees like Steve still work in museums, without actually earning any money, their work is nevertheless valuable. By contributing to the public good, Steve remains a part of society. Many in Germany are familiar with the mechanism. Grandparents may look after their grandkids while their children are out working, for example. But in Germany it remains private.

Those who are in their 50s today will have to consider whether they want to leave things as is, or in view of demographic developments, forge a new generational contract, one that encourages and perhaps even obliges people retiring at 65 or 67 to give something back to society in the 10 to 20 years of their retirement. It would be a contract that would also let people work longer, if they wanted to, and in return give them some time for their families during their younger years.

That’s the difficult news for people born in the 60s. In old age, they’re going to have contribute more to this country than their parents do. The good news is: They’ll be needed, very much so.

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A Dove From Hiroshima: Is Fumio Kishida Tough Enough To Lead Japan?

Japan's new prime minister is facing the twin challenges of COVID-19 and regional tensions, and some wonder whether he can even last as long as his predecessor, who was forced out after barely one year.

Japan's new PM Fumio Kishida in Tokyo on Sept. 29

Daisuke Kondo


TOKYO — When Fumio Kishida, Japan's new prime minister. introduced himself earlier this month, he announced that the three major projects of his premiership will be the control of the ongoing pandemic; a new type of capitalism; and national security.

Kishida also pledged to deal with China "as its neighbor, biggest trade partner and an important nation which Japan should continue to dialogue with."

Nothing too surprising. Still, it was a rapid turn of events that brought him to the top job, taking over for highly unpopular predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, who had suddenly announced his resignation from office.

After a fierce race, Kishida defeated Taro Kono to become the president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and pave the way for the prime minister's job.

Born into politics

A key reason for Kishida's victory is the improving health situation, following Japan's fifth wave of the COVID pandemic that coincided with this summer's Olympic Games in Tokyo.

The best way to describe Kishida is to compare him to a sponge: not the most interesting item in a kitchen, yet it can absorb problems and clean up muck. His slogan ("Leaders exist to make other people shine") reflects well his political philosophy.

He is an excellent actor.

Kishida was born into a political family: His grandfather and father were both parliament members. Between the ages of six to nine, he studied in New York because of his father's work at the time. He attended the most prestigious private secondary school — the Kaisei Academy, of which about half of its graduates go to the University of Tokyo.

However, after failing three times the entrance exam to , Kishida finally settled for Waseda University. Coming from a family where virtually all the men went to UTokyo, this was Kishida's first great failure in life.

An invitation for Obama

After he graduated from college, Kishida worked for five years in a bank before serving as secretary for his father, Fumitake Kishida. In 1992, his father suddenly died at the age of 65. The following year, Kishida inherited his father's legacy to be elected as a member of the House of Representatives for the Hiroshima constituency. Since then, he has been elected successfully nine straight times, and served as Shinzo Abe's foreign minister for four years, beginning in December 2012. A former subordinate of his from that time commented on Kishida:

"If we are to sum him up in one sentence, he is an excellent actor. Whenever he was meeting his peers from other countries, we would remind him what should be emphasized, or when a firm, unyielding 'No' was necessary, and so on ... At the meetings, he would then put on his best show, just like an actor."

According to some insiders, during this period as foreign minister, his toughest stance was on nuclear weapons. This is due to the fact that his family hails from Hiroshima.

In 2016, following his suggestion, the G7 Ise-Shima Summit was held in Hiroshima, which meant that President Barack Obama visited the city — the first visit by a U.S. president to Hiroshima, where 118,661 lives were annihilated by the U.S. atomic bomb.

Photo of Shinzo Abe, Barack Obama and Fumio Kishida with their backs to the camera, in Hiroshima in 2016

Shinzo Abe, Barack Obama and Fumio Kishida in Hiroshima in 2016

Japanese cynics

In September, 2020 when Shinzo Abe stepped down as prime minister, Kishida put out his candidacy for the first time for LDP's presidency. He didn't even get close. This was his second great failure.

But reading his biography, Kishida Vision, I must say that besides the two aforementioned hiccups, Kishida's life has been smooth sailing over the past 64 years

When one has had a happy and easy life, one tends to think that human nature is fundamentally good. Yet, the world doesn't work like that. And Japanese tend to believe that "human nature is vice," and have always felt a bit uneasy with the dovish Kishida diplomacy when he was foreign minister.

Leftist traditions from Hiroshima

Hiroshima has always been a city with a leftist political tradition. Kishida's character, coupled with the fact that he belongs to the moderate Kochikai faction within the LDP, inevitably means that he won't be a right-wing prime minister.

How long will a Fumio Kishida government last?

Kishida would never have the courage to be engaged in any military action alongside Japan's ally, the United States, nor will he set off to rewrite the country's constitution.

So after barely a year of Yoshihide Suga in office, how long will a Fumio Kishida government last? If Japan can maintain its relatively stable health situation for some time, it could be a while. But if COVID comes roaring back, and the winter brings a sixth wave of the pandemic as virtually all Japanese experts in infectious diseases have predicted, then Kishida may just end up like Suga. No sponge can clean up that mess.

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