French pension problems on their way here

France has been roiled for weeks because they’re trying to do something about a pension crisis we barely think about.

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Protesters block access to a gas storage site in southern France in protest after French President Emmanuel Macron raised the national retirement age from 62 to 64 without a parliamentary vote.

Photo by RAYMOND ROIG/AFP via Getty Images

My brother, freshly back from Paris last week, reports piles of garbage everywhere.

“Though it’s French garbage,” he observed. “More refined.”

Until rioters set it on fire, that is. All burning garbage is alike.

It’s the result of the nationwide protests that have rocked France for weeks, outcry over the national retirement age being raised from 62 to 64.

We should be watching this unrest carefully here in Chicago, a city with a nearly $34 billion unfunded municipal pension liability. Double the size of the annual city budget. It’s almost funny to see our two mayoral candidates talk about how they’re going to finance their pie-in-the-sky, cop-on-every-corner dreams of urban perfection by digging into the sofa cushions and holding bake sales and cutting corruption. One dollar in five spent by the city services its pension debt. The next mayor will be lucky to maintain the status quo, to send the occupying army of retirees their checks while continuing to put out fires. We should scrap our motto, Urbs in Horto, “City in a Garden,” and replace it with Urbs in Foraminis, “City in a Hole.”

It’s fun to sneer at the French — socialist shovel-leaners complaining about their sweet retire-at-62 perk shifting to a not bad retire-at-64. But at least they’re trying to do something. Our solution is to sell the family silver, or parking meters, kick the can down the road, and hope for a miracle.

I should point out that U.S. Social Security also kicks in at 62, though it starts out at such a pittance, the general advice is to wait as long as possible, so it can grow into something you can scrape by on, maybe.

If I combine it with the smoldering scraps of our exploded newspaper pension, and judicious, this-has-gotta-last-me sips at my 401(k), and it might add up to a kind of subsistence. I certainly won’t be nursing a pastis at a cafe on the Rue Mouffetard.

Then again, I might be an oddity. Most of my fellow columnists have already hung up their spikes — whether defenestrated by the corporate butchers who bought the Chicago Tribune or shown the gate for an ill-considered joke at the Washington Post or various colleagues stepping down at the Sun-Times.

Therein lies the rub.

I seem unusual, in that I still enjoy my job, the performance of which I’ve convinced myself is not wake-up-dig-a-hole-that-fills-overnight-then-repeat drudgery, but meaningful and fulfilling. I like to quote Noel Coward’s quip, “Work is more fun than fun,” though sometimes through gritted teeth, and I suspect the hard truth is that I write the way gambling addicts play slot machines — a recreation grown into compulsion. Once it was voluntary; now it’s just what I have to do.

It’s an overgeneralization to assume that white-collar jobs are satisfying careers while blue-collar jobs are degrading drudgery that workers yearn to be released from so they can enjoy a few years of actual living. That isn’t universal. Remember Harry Heftman, who owned Harry’s Hot Dogs at Randolph and Franklin. He ran it for half a century, and then yielded the land to build an office block. He retired, at age 100. For about two weeks. Then he became a greeter at a Greek diner.

My father, on the other hand, a nuclear physicist who designed atomic reactors and got into artificial intelligence when people thought the term described some kind of plastic thinking cap, couldn’t retire quick enough. At age 56. He’s still retired. For the past 34 years.

Good call? I imagine he thinks so. But seeing him now, at 90, does not make me want to rush to join him on the sofa.

When I think of retirement, I flash on that scene toward the end of “Broadcast News” when Holly Hunter says, “The feeling to stay here is powerful. Why is that?” and Albert Brooks replies, “Maybe the best part of your life is over and you don’t want to get up and start the bad part.”

That sound I just heard is every retiree in Chicago snorting derisively and muttering, “dumb ass” as they pause from peekaboo with their grandchildren and volunteering and the joy of another day to fill exactly as they please. Good for you. But we each need our own illusions to get by, and I’m sticking with mine.

The way I see it, those French are being given a gift and they don’t even know it.

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