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Society

Working into old age in Germany

The number of pensioners still heading to work in their old age has doubled in the past decade. Nearly a million of Germany's 17 million retirees are still working to make ends meet.

At 72 years of age, Günter Hüsken must still work as a gardener because his pension is only just enough to pay the rent. "If I don't earn a little extra, then I'm really in a bad way," he said.

As an orphan, Hüsken was not able to receive quality vocational training, and has worked his whole life in badly paid, physical jobs - as a lifeguard, for instance. Now, years later, his body is starting to give out. "My knees hurt, and I have back pain. And once the back goes out, it's over," he said.

After his divorce, Hüsken raised three children, but he doesn't want to turn to them for help. "That would be too embarrassing," he said.

Many are ashamed

Those who need to work past the age of 70 rarely like to speak about their situation. Marcus Weller, a journalist, followed the lives of many seniors while making a television documentary on the subject. "Many cancelled their involvement in the project due to shame," said Weller.

An older man wearing a hardhat

Manual labor is impossible for many seniors

All the people with whom he spoke had one thing in common: they were hard workers. "[Their situation] is definitely not due to laziness or an abuse of the welfare state," said Weller. "It's a failure of the system."

A former construction worker, now working as stair-builder in his old age, told Weller that talk of raising the retirement age from the current 67 was not feasible.

"That's not at all possible. This drudgery, all day long, is deadly," he said, adding that younger colleagues do not take it easy on older employees. "You have to get out there and work, even if it's raining."

Can also be enjoyable

Of course, there are also those older people who work because they want to stay active and be around other people. Such is the case of the woman who, at the age of 70, still works as a cleaner in a Cologne call center. "Retire, me? Never - I like to be around people," said the woman in Weller's documentary.

Klaus Weber, a lathe operator at the age of 75, is also still hard at work in the Saxony town of Seiffen. He's happy that he can continue to make wooden toys in his workshop at home. "I enjoy it, I have my rhythm and it does me good," he said. Weber is motivated mainly by people who continue to be excited about the things he creates.

Frightening prospects

Klaus Weber works on his wooden toys

Klaus Weber is happy to continue working after the age of 70

The fact that more and more people are continuing to work beyond the retirement age has become a topic of discussion for the German government, unions and many social scientists. "Working in old age is not a hidden problem," said Claudia Vogel, a researcher at the German Centre of Gerontology.

In an interview with DW, Vogel noted that poverty among the elderly has increased in the past decade. According to official statistics, ever more people are applying for state aid, with 440,000 more being eligible today due to increased employment in low-wage jobs. Drivers, packers or care workers have little financial leeway to build up a sufficient pension.

Women, migrants especially vulnerable

Women are especially stricken by poverty in their old age, having lost some of their pension-contribution years to childcare or caring for elderly, dependent parents. Vogel also noted that the proportion of older people with financial problems is particularly high among those with foreign roots. Such elderly suffer from poverty at a rate of about 30 percent, compared to around 10 percent among the non-immigrant population.

The answer to this dire situation may not be private plans, because not many are able to afford that. According to Vogel, the pension system must be strengthened so that the burden is more equitably distributed throughout society.

In any case, the further development of the system will continue to be a controversial topic in Berlin before a solution is finally found.

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