Work, employability and retirement, a French paradox

Like most people around the world, French workers value their job and find meaning in it but they suspect they won’t be able to work as long as they would like to.

The author(s)

  • Etienne Mercier Public Affairs, France
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On average, the French want to work longer in life than workers across the world

French workers are no more reluctant to work until an advanced age than are their counterparts in the rest of the world. It’s quite the opposite: when comparing their answers to those from workers in the other 27 countries in our survey, French workers are among those who want to work as long as possible (on average, until they are 59 vs. 57 for all workers globally). They would even work longer than the average of all their European colleagues (58) and as long as the average across all G7 countries (59). In Europe, if German employees would see themselves working until they are 60, Britons aim at retiring at the same age as do the French (59) whereas Spaniards and Italians would rather end their professional life sooner (57). There are, of course, countries where the working life is expected to be longer: it is the case of the United States, Canada and Sweden (age 66 on average), as well as the Netherlands (65) and South Korea. But not China, where workers would rather stop working at the much earlier age of 54.

Yet French employees consider that after their 48th birthday, it will be impossible for them to find a job…

Although they would see themselves working until they’re 59, on average, French workers assume that, 11 years earlier, by the time they reach age 48, they will no longer be employable. Workers in other countries have a similar expectation: globally, the average age past which they anticipate being unable to find work is 49. However, this is not the case everywhere in Europe. Certainly not in Germany where respondents think they’ll be able to find a job until they’re 55 (7 years later than in France), nor in Great Britain and Sweden where one expects to be employable until age 56 (8 years later) and in the Netherlands (age 58, 10 years later). How to explain these disparities?

French employees are less likely to find a job after they’re 60 and they know it

According to an OECD report, there has never been a time with so many older adults working in France, but their rate of employment has never been so low. The percentage of older French adults who are employed is one of the lowest amongst the countries listed in the report: only 31% of the French aged between 60 and 64 have a job, compared to 54% in Great Britain, 58% in the Netherlands, 60% in Germany and 70% in Sweden! What our survey shows is that French workers are fully aware of the existence of an “age ceiling” in their country.

This expectation gap provides clues to why the retirement reform recently initiated by the French Government is facing so much opposition

Beyond the fact that many French workers disagreed with the measures proposed by the Government, the study highlights the extent to which French workers are confronted with a paradoxical situation and face an equation that is impossible to resolve: they are asked to work longer in life while knowing full well that most of them will just be unable to do so. The number of French adults aged 50 and older who are unemployed has been multiplied by three and reached 916,000 in 2019. The likelihood of finding a job after age 52 drops dramatically. The chance of finding a new job at age 50 is 50%; it is only 30% at age 58 and 20% at age 60. In this context, any reform plan that aims at lengthening the retirement age is bound to be perceived as unfair and to raise suspicion that the real goal is to reduce their pension, considering that working longer is simply impossible.

The author(s)

  • Etienne Mercier Public Affairs, France