Global Pension Timebomb: Funding Gap Set To Dwarf World GDP

The world’s six largest pension systems will have a joint shortfall of $224 trillion by 2050, imperiling the incomes of future generations and setting the industrialized world up for the biggest pension crisis in history.

To alleviate the looming crisis, governments must address the gaps in access to the pensions system and ageing populations as they are the key sources of the widening pension gap. These are the main findings of the new World Economic Forum report, We’ll Live to 100 – How Can We Afford It?, released Friday, which provides country-specific insights into the challenges being faced at a global level and potential solutions.

“The anticipated increase in longevity and resulting ageing populations is the financial equivalent of climate change,” said Michael Drexler, Head of Financial and Infrastructure Systems at the World Economic Forum. “We must address it now or accept that its adverse consequences will haunt future generations, putting an impossible strain on our children and grandchildren.”

The report is the latest study to calculate the impact of ageing populations on the pension gap in the world’s largest pension markets, which include the United States, United Kingdom, Japan, Netherlands, Canada and Australia.

The gap in those markets is the largest in the US, where a current shortfall of $28 trillion is projected to rise to $137 trillion in 2050. The average gap in the six markets combined is calculated to reach $300,000 per person. The total gap for all 8 markets in the study (which further includes China and India, which have the world’s largest populations) will reach a total of $400 trillion by 2050.

The savings gap resembles the amount of money required in each country (including contributions from governments, individuals and employers) to provide each person with a retirement income equal to 70% of their pre-retirement income. Outgoings such as personal savings and tax are often reduced in retirement and targeting 70% of pre-retirement income, in line with OECD guidelines, is a crude guide to provide people with a similar standard of living in retirement as they had before retirement.

For low-income earners the 70% target will not be sufficient and could result in poverty unless savings are increased. The funding gap will continue to grow at a rate higher than the expected economic growth rate, often 4%-5% a year, driven in part by ageing population effects: a growing retiree population who are expected to live longer in retirement.

“The retirement savings challenge is at crisis point and the time to act is now,” said Jacques Goulet, President, Health & Wealth at Mercer, the lead collaborator for this initiative. “There is no one ‘silver bullet’ solution to solve the retirement gap. Individuals need to increase their personal savings and financial literacy, while the private sector and governments should provide programmes to support them.”

The report suggests five high priority actions that governments and policy-makers should take to adapt pension systems to address the challenges:

  • Review normal retirement age to increase in line with life expectancies. For countries where future generations have a life expectancy of over 100, such as the US, UK, Canada and Japan, a real retirement age of at least 70 should become the norm by 2050.
  • Make saving easy for everyone. A good example is the recent reforms in the UK where 8% of earnings will be automatically contributed to pension savings accounts for each individual from 2019. This initiative to automate the act of saving so far has boosted savings for 22- to 29-year-olds and low-income workers, and is estimated to create $2.5 billion in additional pension savings each year.
  • Support financial literacy efforts – starting in schools and targeting vulnerable groups. Financial literacy education should be offered throughout people’s careers to raise awareness of the importance of saving. A good case study is the media campaign executed in Singapore for the launch of CPF LIFE, the national annuity scheme that focused on translating a simple message easily understood by the average person.
  • Provide clear communication on the objective of each pillar of national pension systems and the benefits that will be provided. This would give individuals an understanding of the level of income they can expect from government and mandatory occupational systems and whether they need to accumulate their own individual savings to “top-up” income provided from national systems.
  • Aggregate and standardize pension data to give citizens a full picture of their financial position. A good example is Denmark, where an online dashboard collates pension information to provide individuals with a holistic view of their different pension savings accounts.

The report emphasizes that governments and policy-makers have a central role to play in reforming pension systems to ensure we can adapt to societies where living to 100 is commonplace.

“Because retirement outcomes unfold slowly over decades, emerging problems are very hard to see and are virtually unchangeable once they occur,” said Robert Prince, Co-Chief Investment Officer, Bridgewater Associates and part of the World Economic Forum’s Retirement Investment Systems Reform Project Steering Committee. “Good outcomes require effective approaches and good decisions applied consistently over decades. Ineffective actions taken over decades will put a weight on society and economies that will be virtually impossible to lift once it occurs. Given ageing populations and increasing lifespans, effective reforms are required now.”


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