Americans are quite familiar with the challenges threatening the Social Security system, with an aging population starting to retire and putting more strain on the shrinking group of workers paying the Social Security taxes that support their benefits. But America isn't alone in facing a retirement crisis, and other countries are taking much more dramatic steps to shore up their systems for providing financial assistance to people in their old age. In particular, Australia plans to force its workers to stay in their jobs for years beyond their current retirement age in order to qualify for benefits -- and it's giving employers incentives to make sure older workers can get the jobs they need to hold out that long.
The Australian solution: Work until you're 70
Australia has seen many of the same things happen to its old-age pension system that the U.S. has seen with Social Security. When Australia first implemented what it calls its age pension more than a century ago, only 4% of the nation's population lived to the age at which they could claim benefits. Now, though, life expectancies have grown, with the typical Australian living 15 to 20 years beyond the official retirement age of 65. As a result, 9% of the Australian population gets benefits from the age pension, and the potential for some of those recipients to get support from the program for two decades or more has threatened the financial stability of the system. Currently, 2.4 million Australians receive about $35 billion in benefits from the program, making it the Australian government's largest expenditure.
As a result, Australia has made plans to increase its official retirement age. Over the next 20 years or so, Australians will see the age at which they can officially retire climb to 70 if the plan is approved, putting the land down under at the top of the world's list of highest retirement ages.
When you just look at the age-pension portion of Australia's retirement system, that sounds draconian, and plenty of Australians aren't thrilled about the move. With a significant part of Australia's economy based on extracting natural resources like oil, natural gas, coal, and various metals, the back-breaking work that many Australians do makes the prospect of staying on the job until 70 seem almost physically impossible. Proponents of the measure counter that argument with the fact that 85% of Australians work in the services industry, and many of those jobs don't require the physical exertion that makes them impractical for those in their 60s.
Moreover, younger Australians worry about the need for older workers to stay on the job longer. Many fear a "jobless generation" of young adults who can't get their older counterparts to give way and make room for them to start their careers.
What Australians have that the U.S. doesn't
Yet before you bemoan the fate of the Australian public, it's important to keep in mind that the age pension system isn't the only resource they have going for them. In addition, Australians participate in what's known as the superannuation system, under which employers are required to make contributions toward superannuation retirement accounts equal to 9.5% of their pay. Like American 401(k)s, employees are allowed to select investment options for this money, with default provisions usually investing in a balanced-fund investment. In addition, employees can make additional contributions of their own to their retirement accounts.
Over time, superannuation assets have built up impressively. As of June 30, assets in superannuation accounts rose to A$1.85 trillion. Australia is also seeking to have those fund balances rise more quickly by requiring more from employers on the superannuation front. Over the next seven years, the employer contribution rate will rise to 12%, accelerating the growth of this important part of Australians' retirement planning.
Like 401(k)s and IRAs in the U.S., Australians can make withdrawals from their superannuation accounts at earlier ages than they can claim pensions. For those born before mid-1960, access to their retirement savings opens at age 55. That age is slated to rise to 60 over the next decade, but it will still give Australians access to money well before age pensions become available to help them bridge the financial gap.
Should America follow Australia's lead?
Calls to increase Social Security's retirement age have met with strong opposition in the U.S., and the Australian plan won't change that. Yet without the backstop that superannuation provides, raising the retirement age to 70 in the U.S. would be even more painful for aging Americans. Some workers are fortunate enough to have employer matching and profit-sharing contributions that mimic what most Australians get from superannuation, but it's rare for anyone to get anywhere near the 9.5% to 12% that Australian workers have contributed on their behalf.
Many see Australia's answer to its retirement crisis as brutal, but given the aging population, it's consistent with the original purpose of old-age pensions. If the U.S. wants to make similar moves, American workers need the same outside support for their retirement that Australians get -- and that will also require more effort on workers' part to save on their own for retirement.
Dan Caplinger has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.