This article was published by Toronto Life on April 19th 2012. To see this article and other related articles on The Toronto Life website, please click here
Last fall,the Royal Bank of Canada—with $27 billion in annual revenue, $752 billion in assets and 74,000 employees, the biggest and most prudent bank in the world’s safest banking system—announced that new employees would no longer be eligible to receive what is probably the company’s most important workplace benefit: the comprehensive retirement insurance plan. It insures the Royal’s Canadian employees, or at least those hired before January 1, 2012, against all sorts of risks. The risk of reaching retirement age at a time when stock markets are down, or interest rates are low. The risk of outliving one’s retirement savings. Inflation risk. Risks you’ve probably never even heard of, like reinvestment risk and liquidity risk. Even the risk of earning below market returns.
This generous program wasn’t unique to the Royal. Many employers, particularly big companies, once offered similar plans. Some still do, though their numbers are dwindling. You may be wondering, “Why have I never heard of retirement insurance?” You have. It’s called a pension.
We’re heading for a pension crisis. The federal government says so. The opposition says so. Most provinces say so. The library shelves of the land groan beneath the weight of studies. The first class of baby boomers hit 65 this year, and we’re still not ready. The economist Michael Wolfson, formerly the assistant chief statistician of Canada and now at the University of Ottawa, estimates that half of all Canadians born between 1945 and 1970 who have average career earnings between $35,000 and $80,000 are facing a drop of at least 25 per cent in their post-retirement standard of living. Which is perhaps not surprising given that most of us don’t have a pension plan.
The logical fix would be to expand our modest national pension plan: CPP. The Ontario finance minister, Dwight Duncan, spent several years pushing the idea. Workers and employers would contribute more so that, come retirement, they’d receive more. Pension crisis solved. For a while it looked like Duncan’s federal counterpart, Jim Flaherty, was onside—and then ideology got in the way. (It can’t have helped that the NDP and the union movement both favour an expanded CPP.)