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Youth! It’s about time to wake up.

Published on April 19, 2012 by: in: Society

Polish political and social lives are full of preposterous situations. For the first four years of his term of office, Donald Tusk did practically nothing (practically, for it has to be mentioned that he had abolished conscription and some of the retirement benefits) for the young generation. Nevertheless, he still maintained a large support of this social group. The Prime Minister began his second term of office with an announcement of  very crucial changes that in his opinion would be of major importance to the generation of today’s 20-and 30-year-olds. At least in the long term. At the same time, he might have experienced the largest mobilization of the youth against the authorities in the contemporary history of the III RP. If anti-governmental trend that began with ACTA issue will hold and push retirement reform into trash, the young people of this generation will probably score the largest own goal in their history.

I’m not overly fond of Prime Minister Tusk. For the first few years of my work in the public sphere I have worked for rebuilding the Union of Freedom that was already collapsing after Tusk and company deserted this party. I have consistently criticized the previous government’s policies on Liberte’s pages. Due to the neglect of stabilization issues and the strategy of ‘here and now’ those policies deprived Poland of a huge chance for the development and generated problems that would still have to be solved in the future. I really don’t like Donald Tusk’s style of leadership that consists in consistent disposing of those co-workers that are actually capable of having a mind of their own. Today, however, the situation has changed rather drastically. It is the Prime Minister that fights for the most important, in terms of civilization, reform that simply has to be carried out in our country, namely the one increasing the age of retirement. The reform that might be too moderate and stretched over far too many years. Nevertheless, the reform that is crucial for preserving our retirement system that enables living through the years of the old age with some dignity, and the tax scale that will be bearable for my generation of 20- and 30-year-olds.

photo: kamshots

photo: kamshots

What has changed since Bismarck?

The first retirement system was introduced as early as in 19th century by Otto von Bismarck. Its aim was to financially support people in their advanced years, who weren’t able to work anymore. Such solutions were stemming from the effects of Industrialism as well as from discarding the traditional multi-generational family model. It has to be mentioned that, taking into consideration the average life expectancy of a citizen and the health service quality of those times, the time one lived through the retirement was relatively short. It was barely few years. At the same time, at the turn of 19th and 20th century the baby boom came. The number of working people, who committed a part of their earnings for the benefit of the elderly, accordingly to Bismarck’s idea,  grew significantly. This system of social solidarity had a construction of a pyramid. It was efficient as long as the number of working people outgrew the number of retired. At the beginning of the 21st century this situation drastically changed. Thanks to the achievements in medicine, the average life expectancy grew noticeably. A statistical Polish or European citizen lives longer and stays longer in a considerably good health. As a result, in the previous years we could observe a mass retirement of 50- or 60-year-olds who were fit enough and mentally well enough to practice in most professions. Retirement ceased to be only the support for the elderly. What is more, thanks to the well-developed medicine, people stay on the retirement pension statistically longer than before: for 15, 20, 25, 30 years. This phenomenon will only be more accentuated in the years to come as a result of the adverse population trend. Before, several people worked for one pensioner.  Nowadays, it is estimated that the proportions will drop to 1 retiree and 4 working people. Experts in the field warn that in 20 – 30 years this proportions will change to 1 retiree and 2 professionally active. It is rather simple: either retirement pensions will be half the amount they are now or the professionally active will pay a double ZUS (social security fees). Here, I send you, dear reader to your earnings to see how much of what you actually earn goes for the retirement fund in ZUS. Increasing social security fees for the young people (and for the all professionally active people) means they will earn approximately ¼ less. I probably don’t have to say how it will influence their already diminishing desire of having children. Not to mention having two or three of them to ensure substitutability of generations. The alternative is cutting retirement pensions down by half, however, everyone having a single grandmother or grandfather knows that for them it means inability to survive. Individual funds for those insured in ZUS also don’t help by much, for those resources are used to pay the current retirement pensions. As a result, our ZUS funds consist of entries in the accounting books. To ensure that those numbers will actually translate into our retirement pension, in thirty years there will have to be a certain amount of people working and making contributions to the fund. No miracles here.

Increasing retirement age seems to be the best alternative for preventing this absolutely negative demographic trend. Personally, I would really prefer to work for a few more years, even if I have to worry for the job itself, retrain and find a new occupation, to ensure my minimum of survival for the real old age.  I would also like to be sure that the tax scale (that is the payments we are due for the ZUS) will allow me to have a decent life and be able to meet the expense of having two children when I decide I want them.

Working is not evil.

In Communism Poles were used to treat work as a form of oppression that has to be broken as fast as possible. This sad heritage distorted our grandparents’ perception of life organization as well as their views on social and economic phenomena. However, it would seem that this mode of thinking is not dominant among generations that begun their professional activity and work in the new Poland. These generations self-identify themselves through work, as it provides them with meaning of life and defines their way of functioning in the society. Certainly, there are such problems as lack of jobs, unemployment or the fear of losing the employment. However, the necessity of work is not one of them! The III RP generations are addicted to work. I am sure that for the majority of the III RP generations’ people, the day they retire will be a kind of a personal doomsday event. It is a wholly different matter to say: “I’d like to rest when I retire, someday(…)” and to actually retire. What does it mean for the social life of the majority of non-millionaire retirees? A void, staying at home, watching a telly, limited contact with other people, self-isolation.  The more lucky ones will be able to count on having their garden plots and the possibility of working there (Hear me, hear me! Working!). The work socializes, shakes out of apathy, makes new acquaintances, creates commitments and requires to make some efforts. Jarosław Makowski of Civil Society Institute recalls the data that clearly shows that working up to the old age decreases susceptibility to diseases and increases the quality of life.

That is why I’m rather worried that it is the eldest, almost retired citizens that set the tone for the discussion over retirement reform. Why this phenomenon is such a negative one? First and foremost, this reform is stretched over next few years and doesn’t really apply to them. Their professional activity will not be extended by much. Secondly, it is not them that will have to pay higher taxes in ten or twenty years in case of stopping this reform process. Thirdly, it is not their retirement incomes that are going to be drastically cut but those of today’s 30-year-olds. Also, it is their generation that harbors the stigma of “work is oppressive” mentality, as they functioned in the communist society the longest. However, this mentality is alien to generations brought up in the III RP. Yet, it is those citizens of the eldest working generations, strongly rooted in labor unions that object the most. The young, for whom this topic is of fundamental importance, however faraway (what a 28-year-old thinks of the retirement or taxation in the next ten years. The right to download a free movie from the web is a more important issue…), do not express their opinions in such numbers as their older co-workers. What is more, by aggressively attacking the government in ACTA case, the government that at last begun the key project of reformation of retirement system in Poland, they effectively shoot themselves in the foot. It’s about time to wake up.

Translation: Magdalena Bożek

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About Błażej Lenkowski

Graduate of International Relations at The Faculty of International and Political Science Studies of the University of Lodz; president of Industrial Foundation the publisher of Liberte!; entrepreneur.

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