Putting off the price of pensions

Politicians now fear the wrath of voters over efforts to increase the State pension age

There’s fundamental dishonesty at the heart of Irish political discourse over the State pensions policy. Everyone knows what is required. They all understand that failure to act will impose a greater price. But no one has the bottle to make the decision and to proactively and positively explain to people the reason why.

Report after report commissioned by successive governments has made the same point. With people living healthily for longer, the State either asks them to work an extra year or two, accepts a massive increase in the cost of the State pension and finds a way of funding it, or bankrupts the system.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin, and the leaders of the other main political parties, were rattled by the reception they got on the doorsteps at the last general election over the planned raising of the State pension age. They formed a commission to review the pension and its sustainability. That commission’s report went out of its way to be all things to all people — within the glaringly obvious parameters that there is no “free” way to meet the inevitable bill. It spread the pain over what was, for some, a comically extended period. But not far enough to tempt the Fianna Fáil leader into even half a step forward.

The current policies of the other major parties similarly range from the ambivalent to the blindly populist.

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They fear the wrath of voters over efforts to increase the State pension age by even one year. They should worry about the reaction when people find out they will have to pay significantly more in social insurance (PRSI), not for their own benefit but for a previous generation that did not have the fortitude to share the burden — assuming the political class has the spine for such a tax increase.

Either way, they are buck-passing to younger generations that will already carry a heavier burden because there are fewer of them and they will have to support a rapidly growing group of older people through welfare and health costs — without any certainty that the system will be in place when their time to retire comes.

The history of government-commissioned reports on pensions over the best part of the last quarter century has been consistent — an exercise in long-fingering any decision and a determination to ignore the repeated findings.

Everyone is looking for easy solutions, “now money”. But there is a price for everything. And there are certainly no free wins on pensions.