On the 17th September, a new report, Population Aging and the Public Finances in Ireland, was published by Minister for Finance, Paschal Donohoe. It highlighted the need for significant structural reforms to address the aging population, longer life expectancy, and the associated age-related expenditure. It found that current revenue increases will not be sufficient and suggested that policy reforms such as linking the Stage Pension Age to life expectancy will be required.
At the moment, two major factors are contributing to a worrying financial situation for the state and for those most vulnerable in our society. One, people are living longer. Life expectancy is expected to grow by three and a half years between 2019 and 2050. Two, similar to other developed countries, the birth rate is expected to fall. Such developments will have a substantial impact on the age-profile of Ireland’s population. It is predicted that 8% of people in Ireland will be aged 80 or over in 2050, up from 3% in 2019. This means that there will be fewer people of a working age generating the necessary funds to support an older population.
As a result of the aging population, the report expects the GDP (Gross domestic product) to slow relative to current growth rates and that the associated costs of an older population will be €17 billion higher than in 2019, in today’s terms. A slowdown in output growth will impact government revenue which in turn will create considerable pressure to fund this increase in demographically sensitive expenditure such as the state pension. It states, that without reforms, this will push the public finances onto “an unsustainable path”.
It is proposed that the most important reform to tackle the estimated cost of an aging population is to increase the State Pension Age (SPA), aligning it with the increased life-expectancy. However, in December of last year, the Social Welfare Act 2020 was signed into law preventing the previous plans to increase the SPA from 66 to 67 in 2021 and to 68 in 2028. The report estimates that the cost of keeping the SPA at 66 will be €50 billion over the long term.
This publication is part of the Finance Department’s submission to the Commision on Pensions which was set up in November 2020 in order to examine sustainability and eligibility issues in respect to the State Pension and the Social Insurance Fund.
The Pensions Commision only recently submitted their report to Minister for Social Protection Heather Humphreys in early September. It is understood, but not yet confirmed, that the report recommends that the SPA rise in quarterly increments to 67 between 2028 and 2031, before gradually increasing to 68 by 2039.
The report published by the Minister of Finance included no mention of auto enrolment. Looking at the UK, auto enrolment was introduced in 2012 to address similar issues facing Ireland; lack of retirement savings, increasing life expectancy, and the long-term repercussions that this would have on their State Benefits system. The Pensions Act 2008 requires all UK employers to offer workplace pension schemes and to automatically enrol eligible workers into the scheme.
In February of this year, it was announced that the proposed auto enrolment scheme in Ireland would be delayed yet again, until at least 2023. The auto enrolment scheme would see workers automatically enrolled into a pension scheme, with contributions made by the employer, the employee, and the state. The most recent figures from 2019 showed that only 30% of all employees are making regular contributions to their pensions and the gross income point at which most employees make a pension contribution is between €40,000 and €45,000. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the issue, creating a growing divide between who are saving for retirement and who cannot.
Auto enrolment is undoubtedly necessary to address serious vulnerabilities in Ireland’s existing pension model. Cróna Clohisey, the Public Policy Lead with Chartered Accountants Ireland, previously spoke in March 2021, on how the SPA should not be changed without parallel reform to private pensions. Commenting on the issue, she said “Introducing auto-enrolment is the obvious answer to what is now a huge problem. This scheme will incentivise people to save and that in turn will reduce the reliance on the state pension”.
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