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Pension reform in Switzerland: a democratic balancing act

The reform of pension systems is a pressing item on most political agendas worldwide. But in Switzerland, all major reform efforts since 2003 have failed. Is this a case of democracy hitting its limits? Political scientist Silja Häusermann explains how the mountain could be scaled.


Western countries all face the same scenario: the number of pensioners is going up, while the number of active workers – who finance these pensions – is going down by comparison. In Switzerland, the workings of the system needs to be adjusted so that old-age and survivors’ insurance payments – the core of the social finance model – remain guaranteed after 2030.

But the latest attempt at a reform again threatens to fall at the hurdle of the ballot box. During the recent spring parliamentary session, the Senate (the smaller of the two houses) voted that the retirement age for women should be raised from 64 to 65, while at the same time, while at the same time, compensation measures foreseen by the government – like raising VAT or creating a hardship fund for badly-off pensioners – should be cut almost in half.

The debate will move to the larger House of Representatives at a later stage, but it already seems likely that, under the Swiss system of direct democracy, citizens will also have their say in the coming years.

After a series of failures to get such projects past voters, how could the odds be boosted this time around? Silja Häusermann, a professor of political science at the University of Zurich, says parliament needs to come up with a reform package in which both the personal downsides and the societal benefits of such a reform are as well balanced as possible. 

SWI spoke to Häusermann – with a backdrop of late winter snow – in Zurich.


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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR