Social Security is known as the “third rail” of American politics, and fiddling with retirement benefits can prove politically fatal in Europe too. Yet, in recent months and years some Europeans have tried to defuse the time bomb posed by millions of retirees receiving government benefits. The fears of European workers are not unwarranted. Forty percent of Belgians over 75, for instance, will live in poverty by 2016, according to the National Pensions Office in Brussels, in part because of lower pensions.
State pension costs as a percentage of gross domestic product are edging steadily upward. In France, for example, they will reach 14.8 percent in 2050, from 13.3 percent today, according to the European Commission. That would put French pension costs on the high end of the European average. It would also be more than three times the portion of the United States economy devoted to federal retirement programs.