Sweden: Europeans need to question pension habits

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By MALIN RISING, Associated Press

STOCKHOLM (AP) — Europeans need to question their habits and have more flexibility if they want to secure the future of their generous pension systems, Sweden and Britain's prime ministers said Thursday at a summit in Stockholm.

Participants of the Northern Future Forum, including leaders from Britain and the Nordic and Baltic countries, focused on how to increase the number of female leaders and entrepreneurs and enable senior citizens to stay in the labor force longer.

The meeting highlighted the growing disparities between different parts of Europe, uniting countries with pro-market views and skeptical attitudes toward calls for more regulation from European Union members like Germany and France.

"We live longer, we are better educated and we are healthier than ever before. This is, of course, a fantastic development, but it is also true that our education, health and pension system have not adapted to this development, let alone our attitudes and social norms," Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt said.

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron agreed, saying, "I don't think anyone is saying you must work until you are 75, I think what we are all saying is that we need to have greater flexibility."

Reinfeldt said the fact that the average global life expectancy has risen from around 46 years in 1950, to nearly 70 today — and 80 in the EU — has changed the premise for pension systems.

He singled out Iceland as a country that has managed to keep people in the work force longer. Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir is still working at 69, and the nation's average retirement age is 67.

Reinfeldt — who made headlines in Sweden earlier this week by suggesting citizens may need to work beyond 70 to retain the current standard of the pension system — clarified he didn't want to force anyone to work longer but would encourage them to do so.

For Cameron, who last month isolated Britain from fellow EU countries by rejecting a new pact on fiscal unity, the Stockholm meeting was a chance to form new alliances within the 27-nation European Union.

"It's great to get together with like-minded countries," he said. "It's different to European Councils — no long communiques, no long speeches by politicians, just actually listening to new ideas, and trying to make sure we make the most of it."

After the meeting, Cameron said he had been inspired by measures in the Nordic countries on boosting women's participation in the labor force. He said he was especially interested in a Swedish initiative to lower taxes on services such as cleaning that aim to spur more families to hire people to help with household chores.

"I think the importance of the flexible parental leave that many of the countries here already have, and we are looking to introduce, is absolutely vital. That point was made by a number of participants," he said.

Reinfeldt acknowledged the meeting brought together some of the better performing economies in Europe.

"Looking at the nine countries that are represented here today, it is true that the economic forecasts are brighter for us than for many other countries in Europe. On average our nine economies will grow about 2 percent ... compared to a negative growth of half a percent for the eurozone," he said.

Still, he noted that the downturn in the rest of Europe will affect the north.

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