Labor unions shut down much of Belgium's economy Friday with a nationwide strike against the government's plans to push back the retirement age. The government says the plan is the only way to prevent a pension crisis. That position reflects the mounting concern across Europe that an aging population means states will no longer be able to pay traditionally generous pensions unless people stay at work longer.
Under a "generational pact" but forward by the Liberal-Socialist coalition government, the earliest retirement age will be pushed back from 58 to 60, although exemptions will apply to certain categories of workers.
In a second daylong general strike in less than a month, they shut down most public transport, steel and car factories, government offices, state television and radio networks.
Trains were kept running to ferry into the capital an estimated 70,000 protesters for a downtown demonstration against the plans. "Why should we keep older people working longer when younger people cannot find work," fumed Peter Geysen, 25, an oil refinery worker from Antwerp who joined the protest. "We are going a century backward."
Just over 19 percent of Belgians under the age of 25 are unemployed, compared with a national jobless rate of 8 percent.
Union leaders said more workers followed the strike call than at its last nationwide stoppage Oct. 7. However, the widespread traffic gridlock around Brussels that marked the previous strike, was largely avoided this time as many commuters stayed home.
Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt's government says it cannot afford to budge.
Belgium's generous retirement schemes have left the country with one of Europe's lowest employment rates, but it is far from alone in facing a looming funding shortfall as the baby boom generation edges toward pension age.
The European Union's working age population is estimated to drop from 303 million to 280 million by 2030, while the ratio of retirees to workers could almost double by 2050 with 28 percent over 65.
Without changes, the U.N.'s International Labor Union has predicted labor shortages triggering a 22 percent drop in per capita gross domestic product by 2050.
However, plans to make people stay in work longer are highly unpopular.
In Germany, talk of upping the retirement age from 65 to 67 has sparked outrage even before it becomes government policy, reports the AP. I.L.