Can New Zealand's superannuation age remain at 65?

2019-06-11 20:55:32

If you're under 50, you're probably used to being told that you'll be lucky to get any superannuation when you're older.

Or, if you do, it'll have to be offset by your KiwiSaver savings. Or it'll kick in only when you're too old to notice.

Outgoing Retirement Commissioner Diane Maxwell has been outspoken about the need to increase the pension age from 65.

But is it really such a non-negotiable necessity?

Here's why the age needs to increase

To put it bluntly: Money.

We have one of the simplest pension schemes in the world - all you have to do is be old enough and have lived in the country long enough and you can get it.

But that also makes it expensive - about $14.5 billion this year. Jobseeker benefits, by comparison, cost just $1.7b and sole parent support $1.08b.

In the Budget, the Government noted that social assistance spending is expected to increase by $6.8b between now and 2023.

Of that, $4.8b relates to growth in pension expenses, reflecting an expected increase in the number of people receiving it, from almost 741,300 last year to over 872,900 (a 17.8 per cent increase) as well as a boost in the amount paid to each pensioner.

By 2023, superannuation will make up around 53 per cent of core Crown social assistance spending.

And that bill is only going to get bigger. It's estimated that the number of people aged over 65 will hit 1.2 million within the next 10 years, from 600,000 in 2013.

Maxwell said that meant something had to change. If it isn't the age at which you can get the pension, it would have to mean higher taxes, cutting spending on other areas, or reducing the rate paid.

Forty-four per cent of people aged 65 to 69 are still working and that is expected to increase in future. Others continue even longer. Some of them are even serving as the country's deputy prime minister.

People often complain about being called "elderly" in their late 60s - but are also claiming the old age pension.

Maxwell said the country had passed a tipping point where most people at 65 were healthy, fit and active and did not see themselves as pensioners.

"Sixty-five is not what it used to be. People say 'I'm not elderly. I'm not even old'.

"If you think about the original intention of super in 1898 back then we weren't expected to make it much past that. Then it went to 60 then back to 65 but where we've got to now, our life expectancy is much longer. Women should expect to get to mid or late 80s, and men mid 80s, broadly. You used to get super for five years, then 10 and now 20 - soon it'll be 30. I'm not sure how we can fund people getting super for 30 years or more."

She said New Zealand needed to be clear about the fact the current system was not sustainable but that the pension needed to be protected for those who really needed it.

In 2016, the Commission for Financial Capability said increasing he age of eligibility to 67 over an eight-year period would save about $3.5 billion by 2034.

But hang on...

But other people say there's no reason to bump up the age.

It's definitely almost as politically unpalatable as a capital gains tax - National tried to introduce an increase which Labour promptly rolled back.

Researchers Michael Littlewood and Michael Chamberlain have said there is no need for panic.

In their response to Maxwell's 2016 review, they said: "We know that the population aged 65-plus will about double over coming decades and that the costs of healthcare and New Zealand Super will increase substantially if current settings remain.  These two major government programmes will be the most directly affected by the ageing population.  However, we also know that New Zealand's economy will grow and, barring catastrophes, we should as a country be able to afford more than we currently pay for the age-related programmes.

"In 2060 dollars, the Treasury estimates that the net cost of super will be $105.4 billion.  By 2060, estimated GDP will be a nominal $1487 billion.  Bringing those numbers back to 2015 dollars at the assumed inflation rate of 2 per cent per annum suggests that the economy will grow in real terms by about 153 per cent over the 45 years. In the meantime, the total population will have grown by about 39 per cent."

They said the real question was whether taxpayers of the future would be happy to pay the cost of a future pension. But more immediate priorities could be addressed first.

"We worry about what the cost of superannuation might be in 2060, why aren't we questioning today's cost?  Taxpayers spend a net 4.2 per cent of GDP today – that's more than $11b.  Is that a good use of taxpayers' money?"

Another reason cited to hold the age at 65 is that there is a portion of the population who cannot work past that point.

People who work in physical, manual labour find it harder to continue than those who work at a desk, particularly if they suffer a bad back, or dodgy hip...

But Maxwell said that group of people was much smaller than it had been in the past. "It's not just our life expectancy that's longer, it's our health expectancy."

She said people who were struggling to work would need support, but it need not be through the pension. There could be an accommodation supplement or other benefits.

She wanted to see more investment in people in their 50s to help them retrain if necessary, or with health support to put them in a better position when they reached 65.

Those who were really in no shape to work would not "wake up on their 65th birthdays" needing to quit, she said. Problems would have arisen much earlier that needed to be addressed.

Maori and Pacific people also currently have lower life expectancies but Maxwell said that was something to fix outside pension settings. "My partner is Samoan. My son is half-Samoan. I wouldn't want to raise him saying you get super earlier because you're Samoan - what does that say to him? It tells him it's a done deal. I don't think that's right."

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