France’s retirement age crisis isn’t about age. It’s about trust.

Challenge Factory’s Blog

France’s retirement age crisis isn’t about age. It’s about trust.

Challenge Factory’s Blog

By Lisa Taylor

When people talk about the Future of Work, discussions often anchor on a single topic or trend, like hybrid work or ChatGPT. But the Future of Work is bigger than any one work arrangement or tech innovation. Recent protests in France provide a good example of how the topic making headlines—in this case, pension and retirement eligibility ages—is not actually the story.

Despite the focus on shifting eligibility for state pension benefits from age 62 to 64, the unrest we are watching on the news is not about the specific age when people can retire. Instead, the two-year increase has become a flashpoint and case study as governments react and enact (or impose) changes that shape the Future of Work.

Changes made to retirement ages, in an effort to ensure the sustainability of pension systems as populations age, have little to do with the actual ages or dates selected. They have everything to do with how citizens relate to governments, how past promises are kept or broken, and how trust has eroded—causing citizens to question how the cost savings will be allocated.

Are the funds saved by extending the eligibility age by two years going to be allocated to programs that workers want supported? Or are they being diverted to other priorities?

At Challenge Factory, we use five drivers to understand how the world of work is changing. In this case, the driver of shifting demographics (specifically, longevity) is bumping up against the driver of career ownership and employment relationships. But these changes are occurring in a broader context, where widescale revolutionary change is also occurring as the world reacts to multiple crises at the same time.

For Canadians to see the important lesson hiding amidst the chaos in France, we need to zoom out and see the urgent action needed to evaluate social contracts and the importance of trust.

How leaders enact change matters

France, one of the birthplaces of social contract theory, is notorious for its long-standing history and culture of protests as an expression of civil discontent. The most high-profile protest in France occurred in May 1968. Sparked by students, but eventually expanded to include the working class, it resulted in a labour dispute and subsequent political crisis. Amassing 10 million protestors, who occupied universities, factories, and the streets, France’s economy screeched to a halt for days.

Today’s unrest has brought back memories of 1968, with large numbers of younger people taking to the streets. The flashpoint of the day is French President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to increase eligibility for pension benefits from 62 to 64 years by 2030, with a gradual phase-in period. Once implemented, France will still have one of the lowest retirement ages in Europe.

The issue is not the reform. The population realizes that the affordability of the current pension system needs addressing, given the country’s ageing demographics. Almost half believes their pension system is no longer sustainable.

The problem is how this one issue is tied into larger changes and the people’s distrust of how Macron’s government will use the money saved. In a situation already rife with low trust, Macron used executive power to force through the bill without a vote in the National Assembly. Although he survived the no-confidence vote that followed, that distrust isn’t going anywhere.

While much attention is paid to what is being proposed, the real catalyst of unrest lies more in how leaders enact change. French citizens are not really protesting a raise in retirement age. They are reacting to a violation of values (perceived or real) that underpin the stability of the relationship they believe they have with the state. To shape the Future of Work, big decisions need to be made and some will require leaps of faith. This is hard to achieve when trust in shared values is gone.

The French case study is a good lesson for all governments.

As environmental and demographic change become more urgent and critical, it’s clear that current systems are not sustainable and “rules” will need to change. During periods of transition, it can be difficult to determine how to uphold the values underlying the existing social contract, even as promises have to be broken or entitlements shifted. The solution doesn’t come from becoming anchored to dates or ages.

Today, we’re operating in a low-trust environment. More than anything, we need public and civil leaders who understand how to rebuild trust and foster partnership even in times of difficult transitions.

Without it, we’ll see more people taking to the streets.

With contributions from Emily Schmidt and Emma James.