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It is a sad fact that only 20 per cent of private-sector workers are covered by pension plans in their workplace. In stark contrast, nearly 100 per cent of public-sector workers are covered. Of course, none of this is news; pension envy among private-sector workers is as Canadian as hockey and Timbits.

What is perhaps more interesting and less well understood is the garbled message the government is sending with the pension programs it provides to its own employees. I will single out the federal Public Service Pension Plan (PSPP), not only because it has more than half a million members, or because it is generous even by public-sector standards, but also because the federal government has the power to effect change in a way that would benefit millions of Canadians.

The classic defence of plans such as the PSPP is that everyone benefits when civil servants can retire in dignity. Besides the obvious advantages for the participants themselves, good government-sponsored pension plans create a benchmark for other employers to emulate.

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In the case of the federal government, however, this rationale contains a fatal flaw. The last thing the federal government would ever want is for all private-sector employers to adopt pension plans like the PSPP. The consequences would be disastrous for both the Canadian labour force and for tax revenues.

Consider the labour force first. At present, we have about four workers for every retiree. Fifty years ago, that ratio was 6.6 to 1 and in another 20 years it is forecast to dwindle to just 2.3 to 1. Barring a robotic revolution, we will probably not have enough workers to keep the economy running.

Don’t count on immigration to make up for the looming shortage of workers. It is already running at the highest rate in a century (with the exception of 1956, when the Hungarian refugee crisis occurred); the general public is unlikely to want to see immigration rise much more, even if we had the infrastructure to support it.

A higher birth rate is another possible way to change the worker-to-retiree ratio, but it is not clear what, if anything, would cause the birth rate to rise any time soon. Besides, the impact on the worker-to-retiree ratio would be negligible for at least 30 years.

The inescapable conclusion is that the only viable way to ensure there will be enough workers in the future is to encourage people to keep working longer. Alas, the federal PSPP does just the opposite. The plan’s retirement rules incentivize long-term civil servants to retire as early as age 50. If private-sector employers had maintained similar pension plans all along, the labour force today would have roughly one million fewer workers.

The effect on income-tax revenues if everyone had a PSPP-like pension plan would be equally damaging. A C.D. Howe paper by Malcolm Hamilton estimates that the average Canadian worker contributes about 14.1 per cent of pay toward retirement. (This includes employee and employer contributions to registered retirement savings plans and pension plans but not tax-free savings accounts.) In the case of federal public-sector workers, the contribution rate could exceed 25 per cent in a year when the PSSP has a big deficit. If private-sector workers (and their employers) made tax-deductible contributions at that rate, overall tax revenues would drop by more than $15-billion a year. Clearly, the federal government would never allow this to happen.

The time has, therefore, come to change the federal PSPP to better reflect the public interest. (Or actually, to change it further. Some amendments were made during the Harper era though they did not go nearly far enough.) The plan is a relic from an era during which the country had more potential workers than the economy could absorb but this is no longer the case.

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So what should the federal government do to set a good example for private-sector employers? First, it should remove all incentives within the PSPP to retire early. Employees could still retire early, of course, but with the same penalty that applies to all participants in the Canada Pension Plan. Retiring early in comfort may require them to save a little extra in an RRSP and/or a TFSA, the same as what most other Canadians already do.

Second, it should reduce total employee and employer contributions under the PSPP to 18 per cent of pay, including any deficit payments that may have to be made in the future. Even at 18 per cent, the amounts being contributed by, and on behalf of, federal civil servants would still be at the high end of the spectrum.

Of course, these recommendations will not go over well with all stakeholders. No doubt the public-sector unions would strenuously defend the status quo on the basis that PSPP members contribute a high percentage of pay and should be entitled to a generous pension benefit in return. On this point, I would note that over the 12-year period from 2006 to 2017, PSPP contributions by members constituted barely one-third of total contributions (37 per cent to be exact). In most large public-sector plans, member contributions fund 50 per cent of the total pension cost and that includes the cost of paying off any plan deficits that may arise. It is time the federal PSPP fell into line.

The effect of the suggested changes would not be felt immediately since new retirement rules can be applied only to future service. They are, nevertheless, important if the federal government truly wants to set a good pension example for the rest of the country.

“Frederick Vettese is a partner of Morneau Shepell and author of “Retirement Income for Life: Getting More without Saving More”.

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