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Labor Market

Workaholic seniors or old age poverty?

More and more senior citizens in Germany are working. Is it because they still feel young and want to work, or are they being forced by low pensions? Experts disagree on how to interpret the statistics.

ARCHIV - Der 74-jährige Drechslermeister Klaus Weber steht an der Drechselbank in seiner Werkstatt in Seiffen (Sachsen) und fertigt hölzerne Vögel und Bären (Archivbild vom 96.08.2009). In Deutschland wollen oder müssen immer mehr Rentner arbeiten - auch noch in hohem Alter. Seit dem Jahr 2000 ist die Zahl der Ruheständler mit einem Minijob um knapp 60 Prozent oder gut 280 000 auf etwa 761 000 gestiegen. Foto: Wolfgang Thieme dpa +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

Rentner mit Minijob

Old people are working in Germany more and more, even after they have reached pensionable age. That emerged following an official parliamentary request to the government made by the socialist Left party. The figures show that the number of pensioners working in a so-called "mini-job" - a tax-exempt job that pays up to 400 euros ($500) a month - has risen by around 60 percent since 2000. That means that 761,000 people who have nominally retired are still working - many of them over 74. Germany currently has a total of 17 million pensioners.

Pensioner delivering papers
Photo: Fredrik von Erichsen dpa/lhe

Some pensioners now deliver papers early in the morning

For Herbert Buscher of the Halle Institute for Economic Research (IWH), the main reason for the increasing number of working pensioners is the fact that people are living longer and staying healthier. "You're not past it at 65 anymore," he told DW. "You still feel physically and psychologically fit enough to seek out some kind of work, whether it's voluntary or paid."

Unions warn of old age poverty

But unions and community organizations see another meaning in the figures - that many people's pensions are not enough to live on. "They are a sign that many people cannot enjoy their retirement, and have to take on badly paid jobs to make ends meet," said Annelie Buntenbach, board member at the Confederation of German Trade Unions (DGB).

Ulrike Mascher, president of social community lobby group VdK, also thinks the decrease in pensions in the past few years has led to more working pensioners. "You can see that the lowering of pension levels has had an effect on pensioners," she said.

Old man answering phone
Photo: Christian Charisius dpa/lno +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

Senior citizens often work as receptionists or answer phones

But there are different ways to interpret the statistics. Buscher argues that you can't judge people's financial situation by the size of their state pension: "You have to take into account company pensions or possibly a private pension, so judging by the state pension on its own is no longer informative."

East-west divide

There are certainly regional differences. Buscher admits that, in eastern Germany, many old people are being forced to work to avoid poverty: "There is a lot of long-term unemployment and many incomes there are low, so state pensions are consequently low too."

On top of that, company pensions have not yet had an effect on pensioners in eastern Germany today, since the state provided all the pensions in the old communist East Germany. Women are also disproportionately more affected than men, since they often have a lower income and are more likely to interrupt their working lives to look after children.

Old hands with purse
Photo: Sebastian Willnow/ddp/dapd

Old age poverty is particularly prevalent in eastern Germany

Mini-jobs are the rule

For Karl Brenke, labor market expert at the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) in Berlin, changing working conditions are also playing a role. "In many areas, work is not as physical as it used to be," he said. "That's why people can work longer." He says this is certainly true of technical and academic jobs, and he adds that highly qualified people who are working longer are unlikely to be doing so because they have to.

But Buntenbach disagrees. "If everything was that easy, and old people could work longer, then you'd have to ask why they don't do the kinds of better paid jobs that are subject to social insurance contributions," she told DW. "But that's not what the job market is like for old people." Instead, she said, most old people have to make do with the badly paid mini-jobs.

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