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Last Updated: Tuesday, 3 June, 2003, 23:08 GMT 00:08 UK
Italians fear a poor old age
By Rebecca Pike
Bologna, Italy

Marilena Venditelli
Marilena hopes to be able to start a private pension
Most weekends, Marilena Venditelli likes to spend time sailing with her friends. She's been a researcher at Rome University for the past 12 years.

Like many thirty-somethings in Italy, she's worried she won't be able to afford to do the same kinds of things when she stops working.

"I know I won't get a good pension," she said. "For the class of university professors like the one I'm trying to belong to, they were much more lucky in the past than they will be in the future."

Italians used to be able to look forward to a much more comfortable retirement.

In the past, they were paid 80% of their final salaries, as long as they'd worked for at least 25 years.

It led to the phenomenon known as "baby-pensioners" - people retiring before they'd even reached middle-age.

Shrinking population

As in France and Germany, pensions in Italy have always been paid for from workers' wages.

But changing demographics meant this system was becoming less and less affordable.

In the 1990s a series of reforms led to pensions being linked to contributions rather than salaries.

But, according to Professor Franco Pavoncello, of John Cabot University in Rome, it wasn't enough.

"The structure of the population in Italy is starting to resemble that of Florida," he said.

"You have a lot of very old people. At the same time, the level of fertility is constantly decreasing, so there aren't enough people who are starting to work who are going to sustain the system."

Deficit trouble

Nearly 14% of Italy's national income is spent on pensions. And the situation is getting worse.

One way out would be to tax or borrow more to make up the shortfall. But that would go against the rules of the EU's stability pact.

The situation isn't helped by Italy's culture of early retirement.

Men can retire between the ages of 57 and 65 if they've been contributing for at least 35 years.

For Maurizio Gangemi, who is about to retire at 57, there is little to be gained by staying on.

"My company is giving me incentives to retire early," he said. "My pension will not be that much, but that is how things are.

"Even if I stay until the maximum age I will not get much more than I get now."

Work longer

The government wants to change all that and give people incentives to continue working for longer.

One idea is to raise the minimum retirement age to 62.

Another is to put the lump sum paid at retirement into people's pensions funds.

Perhaps the most controversial is the proposal to redirect companies' national insurance contributions for younger workers into the private pension funds of older employees.

This is one of the measures opposed most vociferously by the unions.

Proposed change

Morena Piccinini of the largest union, the CGIL, believes the government's plans would jeopardise the future of younger workers.

"The government wants to pass laws that would destroy the good system that we helped put in place in the 1990s," she said.

"They want to reduce companies' contributions to newly-employed workers by between three and five percent.

"We are talking about a huge number of people who would enter the workplace at a lower cost, at the risk of having a much lower pension in the future."

Unemployment crisis

But the employers' group, Confindustria, believes the government's proposals don't go far enough.

They say Italy needs to make deep structural changes to head off a crisis.

Italy has one of the lowest employment rates in Europe - just 55%.

And fewer than one in 10 people are paying into private pensions.

Stefano Parisi, Confindustria's director-general, says there needs to be far less reliance on the state, and more on the individual.

Too late?

"First of all we need more people in the labour market... then we need a mixed individual and public system - with less emphasis on the public system and more on the individual system."

That's something Marilena Venditelli is considering in the future.

If she has enough money she will start a private pension fund.

The hope for her - and for a whole generation of Italians - is that it won't be too late.

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25 Apr 03  |  Business

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