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There are few places these days where the economic woes facing rich nations—labor shortages, the Great Resignation, an aging workforce—are on display more starkly than on the streets of Paris. There and across France, more than a million people protested on Tuesday, with some waging pitched battles against riot police as they rallied against President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64.
The tear gas had barely dissipated in Paris when activists and labor unions announced more national strikes and mass demos, set for Feb. 7 and Feb. 11, as both left-wing and far-right lawmakers vowed to block Macron’s plan.
Macron says he’s determined not to back down. But he faces resistance from an unexpected force, which is growing in strength: college students and young adults, many of whom have yet to join the workforce, and who are many decades away from retiring.
Indeed, the French president is one of many leaders confronting two phenomena on a collision course: A revolt against overwork among younger generations; and governments’ need for people to work longer, and retire older, to avoid having pension obligations swamp their budgets.
In France this week, Gen Z protesters were out on the streets in support of their future selves. “RIP my retirement in good health,” read one handwritten sign held by a young man on a Paris street on Tuesday. Another read, “retirement before arthritis.”
About 150,000 university students joined Tuesday’s protests, according to student organizations, which have already begun aiming to boost those numbers at next week’s demonstrations. “There’s a lot of work being doing on the campuses,” says Lucas Boutillier, 19, a sophomore political science student at the University of Picardie, in Macron’s hometown of Amiens. “We’ll mobilize even more for next week,” he told Fortune on Wednesday. “We really believe we can block the reform.”
Two-thirds oppose raising the retirement age
About two-thirds of French voters oppose raising the retirement age, according to an Ifop poll released last Sunday. The longer the fight over pensions drags out, the more it could cost the world’s seventh-biggest economy. Macron says France can no longer afford its pensions unless it raises the eligibility age.
“This, to save 1% of GDP? It’s ridiculous!” François Ruffin, 47, a left-wing member of parliament, railed on a Left Bank street on Tuesday, referring to estimates of the fiscal boost that could come from people working two years longer. The government, he says, “should tell the French they know they work hard, and are going to find ways to improve their lives.” A large banner nearby featured the logo of French auto giant Renault, with the words: “Two years + for their profits? Non merci!”
Two decades in retirement
Under Macron’s plan, France’s retirement age would gradually increase between now and 2030, with new employees eased into a streamlined pension system. Such change seems urgent. Public pensions make up 13% of France’s GDP, the second-highest in the 27-nation European Union. By contrast, Social Security payments comprise 5% of U.S. GDP. The life expectancy of the average French person is 82 years (nearly five years more than the average American). In effect, that means the average French retiree draws pension benefits for 20 years. By some estimates, only one in three French people work past 60.
Economists warn of looming disaster, not only in France, but in most advanced countries—as the number of retirees grows sharply in relation to the number of working-age adults. Across the 38 wealthy nations that make up the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, the ratio of people 65 and older to people aged 20 to 64 will more than double over the next few decades, from 22% now to 46% in 2050.
In essence, the thousands of youth storming the streets will increasingly struggle to shoulder the burden of supporting their society’s retirees. “If nothing is done quickly to extend working lives, living standards will fall in the course of the coming decades,” the OECD said in a recent report. “Without a change in attitude, it will be our children and grandchildren who will pay the price.”
But try telling that to French youth. “Youth unemployment is huge in France,” says Boutillier, the 19-year-old student. “If we increase the time people are employed, those are jobs that aren’t freed up for young people.”
‘I want time for me’
To members of Boutillier’s generation, Macron’s plan seems sure to suck them into a life of drudgery that they associate with bygone generations. “They have a relationship with work that has totally changed,” Laurent Guardelli, a labor lawyer in Paris representing corporations, many of them multinationals, tells Fortune. “They say, ‘It’s true I’m not yet working, but I already know that I want time for me, time for my family,’” he says.
To be sure, France has done more than most countries to protect that time, at least on paper. The country mandated a maximum 35-hour workweek in 2000, decades before the current trend toward four-day workweeks. And in 2016, it was the first country to introduce a “right to disconnect” law, forbidding bosses from emailing and calling employees on their off-hours. There is also a minimum of five weeks paid vacation a year.
In recent weeks, French youth have made it clear they will fight hard to keep every bit of that. Many see raising the retirement age as opening the way to the erosion of all the other labor benefits—including some perks that American workers could only dream of.
At one massive street protest earlier in January, Bastien, an 18-year-old freshman at Paris’s Sorbonne University, told a journalist, “it’s a pretty depressing prospect to think you are going to work all your life, and finally reach retirement age either ready to die, or so exhausted that retirement won’t really be retirement.”
Ironically, French employees enjoy higher rates of productivity than other Group of 7 rich countries, according to the OECD. And despite the right-to-disconnect law, Guardelli says almost no employees have sued their bosses for emailing them while they’re off duty. Among tech consultants, which Guardelli has represented in large numbers, “they wake up in the morning, first thing they do is switch on their iPhone and laptop, and that lasts very late into the evening,” he says.
‘Tracances’ is a new French word
Just like Americans, many French are increasingly spending time off checking work emails and Slack messages. In recent months, a new word has crept into the language: tracances, a mashup of work (travail) and vacation (vacances). Last summer, several companies offered employees extended tracances away from the office, on the condition that they packed their laptops and stayed connected.
That is a slippery slope, according to Michèle Bauer, a labor lawyer in Bordeaux. “Don’t be duped, tracances isn’t a favor,” she wrote last summer. “It erases the necessary boundary between work and private life,” she said, pointing out that workaholic habits are what spawned the right-to-disconnect law in the first place.
Boutillier, the 19-year-old student, is determined to fight for that boundary—including for the right to retire relatively young. He voted for the first time in last year’s presidential elections (Macron won), and while his vote is secret, he says, “I’m no fan of the President.” Like thousands of other young French people, he seems willing to risk the economic damage that comes from longer retirements and shorter careers.
This story was originally featured on Fortune.com
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