GLOBAL – National pension systems will continue to suffer stress as working age populations shrink in the next eight years, according to a survey from Mercer.

The consultancy said that would place extra demands on companies to plug some of the gap in terms of health and retirement benefits.

Hong Kong faces the biggest decline – 6% – in the 15 to 64 age group, as a percentage of its total population.

This economically vital age group will drop from 76% to 70% of total population by 2020, according to the research, based on data from the International Labour Organisation.

Other major economies such as Canada, Japan and Russia will see a 4% decline in working age population, while the UK, US and China are expected to see a 2% decline.

Deborah Cooper, partner in Mercer's retirement business, said: "While the changes seem small in percentage terms, this is a dramatic demographic shift and can have a major impact on state pension systems."

She said many governments had reacted to their ageing populations by increasing the minimum payment age for the state pension and reducing the pension paid.

But she said companies, already having to cope with demographic change in their own retirement schemes, would be expected by employees in many countries to fill the gap in health and retirement benefits as the nation state retreats.

"To do this effectively," she said, "companies and employees need to revisit fundamental beliefs on how to prepare for and structure retirement.

"At Mercer, more clients are asking us to investigate phasing out traditional pillars of retirement like fixed pension benefits. Instead, they are interested in implementing new types of scheme design, like the workplace savings products in the UK."

Meanwhile, the UK is lagging behind other countries on the sustainability of its pension system, according to the 2012 edition of the Melbourne Mercer Global Pension Index.

This tracks the sustainability of arrangements against issues such as old age dependency, state pension age, the opportunity for phased retirement and the labour force participation rates of older workers.

The Index gave the UK a score of 46.5 compared with an average of 52.1.

In 2009, when the index was launched, the UK's sustainability score was 56.4.

The index implies that while the UK government is taking steps to reduce the cost of the state pensions, delays in implementing auto-enrolment make it less clear how adequate retirement incomes will be provided to individuals who are not already in employer-sponsored pension schemes, or making their own provision.

Mercer said: "Only about 50% of the workforce in the UK belongs to an employer-sponsored pension scheme, and there is a risk the system will fail the other 50%, since continuing demographic change will make it hard for the (sometimes self-) excluded group to catch up."

However, Fergal McGuinness, senior partner in Mercer's retirement business, said the workplace planning challenges thrown up by the situation would be "interesting".
"An older workforce means an ageing clientele," he said. "Will an older sales force relate better to the retail customers of the future? Certain industries are already facing talent shortages for key skills due to the retirement of seasoned professionals.

"Strategies that include mentoring the younger cadre and allowing greater flexibility during the transition to retirement can make a material difference to the bottom line for affected organisations."