By Sondra L. Shapiro
Chalk it up to sour grapes — pun intended — but I am finding it difficult to empathize with the disgruntled French who now have to wait until age 62 to retire.
Ah, yes, life is one great big lunch break for the French. With their eight-week vacations and 35-hour work weeks, there’s already plenty of time to while away the hours at outdoor cafes sipping wine and slurping down escargot, while I sit glued to my desk, yogurt propped on my knee, tapping away at my keyboard with no break in sight.
From my vantage, at 57, there’s no “retirement” for me in the near future, no time for living the good life, or as the French say, vivant la bonne vie. Through necessity, I’m facing many more years of work to squirrel away money to pay for health care and living expenses in old age.
Of immediate concern — I’m tossing and turning at night worrying about paying for what I hear will be higher health care premiums next year. So please excuse me if I take a moment to scratch my head in wonderment over the virulent outcry, not to mention the violent street riots in response to the French government’s move to up the minimum retirement age to 62 from 60 and the full-pension age to 67 from 65 by 2018.
Perhaps I’m a bit envious that the French are not embarrassed to let loose over something that we Americans wouldn’t bother licking a stamp on a letter to our congressman. With bigger fish to fry — like maintaining my quality of life — I might dream of ungluing myself from my desk so I can slash the tires of some of my political representatives over their lollygagging ways.
At first blush, the extent to which the French are reacting over their government’s actions seems like overkill. Students setting cars and tires on fire, massive demonstrations in cites across France. The country was actually crippled by fuel shortages, thanks to strikes at oil terminals. And there were disruptions to trains, air travel and other forms of public transportation.
Upon closer analysis of human nature, all this mayhem seems to stem from the desire to protect a way of life that every French citizen believes he and she deserve — a social contract with their government. They fear their government, led by a steadfast President Sarkozy is — God forbid — inching toward a system that mimics an American model.
Seriously, folks, there’s also something for us to envy. The French embrace the concept that there’s more to life than work, work, work.
Yet, with all of its many flaws, I rather like our democratic foundation. Though there are times I admit to wishing some benevolent body would take care of me from cradle to grave, like when I’m feeling unsure about how I’m going to save enough to provide financial and health security in old age.
The life of a bon vivant does have its appeal.
Rather than poring over pages of research on expensive long-term care insurance that I need to buy very soon, I could be vegging on my couch with the latest James Patterson novel.
Instead of working extra hours to stash away money for my frail years, I could be working less and taking those long-dreamed of extended trips to Australia and Asia.
Daydreams aside, I can’t bury my head in the sand, even if it’s on an Australian beach. Everybody has to pay up sometime. Europe, like the United States, is in dire financial straits, suffering the worst economy in more than 70 years. Every government is making painful decisions, such as raising taxes and cutting programs. With the French living longer, the country’s pension system is hemorrhaging. Yet the French government’s “social compact,” with the population is making even modest moves an impossible sell.
The truth is there is no free lunch. You see, the French pay very high taxes in return for a generous welfare state. Relinquishing that personal responsibility to a governing power can lull an individual into a false sense of security. This relationship is an unfair burden for all parties.
We Americans are independent souls, who abhor taxes and too much government intervention — as the result of the mid-term elections shows. “I think people started looking at all this and it felt as if government was getting much more intrusive into people’s lives than they were accustomed to,” said President Obama in response to the trouncing his Democratic party suffered.
The likely new House leader, John Boehner, R-Ohio, whose party campaigned on a platform of a smaller role for government said, “It’s a mandate for Washington to reduce the size of government and continue our fight for a smaller, less costly and more accountable government.”
So even though I do envy the French culture of vivant la bonne vie and can understand their fear of losing it, I can’t empathize. The cost is too high for me. I prefer paying for my own croissant and coffee, merci beaucoup.
Sondra Shapiro is the executive editor of the Fifty Plus Advocate. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or read more at fiftyplusadvocate.com.