Swiss Retirees Traverse Pension-Fund Abyss by Dog WalkingCarolyn Bandel and Corinne Gretler
Swiss retirees are soothing concerns over the country’s 42.4 billion-franc ($47 billion) pension-fund deficit by walking dogs, tending bars and giving financial advice.
The number of pensioners for hire at Zurich-based Rent a Rentner AG almost doubled to 2,245 this year, said Peter Hiltebrand, who founded the online booking agency in 2009. The retirees, who range from age 60 to 90, set their own fees, starting at a minimum of about 20 francs an hour.
“It started out as a crazy idea because I didn’t just want to stay home all day after I retired and wanted to remain active,” said 69-year-old electrician Hiltebrand. “I thought surely there must be other pensioners who’d be interested.”
While Switzerland has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world, the number of people who work beyond retirement age jumped 43 percent over the past decade. The online platform, which translates as Rent a Pensioner, allows Swiss companies and private individuals to tap the expertise of retired yoga teachers, chauffeurs and bankers.
“It’s not just about walking dogs and working in the garden,” said Anita Haug, 64, who signed up with the agency after working for Citigroup Inc. in Zurich for 23 years, including eight years as a wealth manager. “There’s a big demand for business and finance, because the pensioners have a lot of know-how that young people lack.”
Older workers can help address the increasing costs of an aging population, labor shortages and slowing economic growth, according to the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The number of working pensioners in Switzerland rose to 143,000 last year, from 100,000 in 2002, according to the Federal Statistics Office. The Swiss government earlier this year proposed raising the retirement age for women to 65 from 64 to bring them in line with men. Switzerland, like other industrialized nations, is facing an aging population as life expectancy increases and birth rates decline.
The Senior Design Factory in Zurich employs at least 30 pensioners making knitted and crocheted hats, scarves and gloves for private clients, according to its co-founder Benjamin Moser.
“The population is getting older, and there’s nothing out there that brings old and young people together,” said Moser, 30, who came up with the idea for the project together with Debora Biffi in 2008 as part of a thesis at the Zurich University of the Arts.
While many pensioners get involved with the Senior Design Factory to remain active, about half the 1,402 people, age 50 to 70, surveyed across western Europe by Allianz SE are unsure whether they can maintain their standard of living in retirement, according to an Aug. 20 study by Europe’s biggest insurer. Many of the respondents will need additional savings to achieve their goals, the study showed.
The deficit on Swiss occupational pensions, which are funded by employers and employees with the aim of allowing retirees to maintain their previous lifestyles, more than doubled to 42.4 billion francs in 2011, from 17.8 billion francs in 2007, as lower interest rates boosted liabilities, the latest available figures from the statistics office show.
The deficit for companies on Switzerland’s benchmark SMI Index increased 24 percent to 27.7 billion francs last year, according to a study by human resources consultants Towers Watson & Co. The average cover ratio, which measures assets as a percentage of liabilities, worsened to 82.9 percent for SMI companies, which include Nestle SA, Novartis AG and UBS AG.
That compares with a deficit of about 118 billion euros ($160 billion) with a cover ratio of just 62 percent for companies on Germany’s DAX index, according to Marsh & McLennan Cos.’s consulting unit Mercer.
“Compared with European Union countries, we’re doing very well,” said Hiltebrand, who started the website with his daughter Sarah and her partner Reto Duerrenberger. “In neighboring countries, it may be more of a have to work rather than a want to work. The need for a Rent a Rentner platform is more acute there.”
Swiss gross income per capita was $82,730 last year, the fifth-highest in the world, according to a World Bank ranking topped by Monaco.
While the importance of the Rent a Rentner platform is difficult to judge, it will help boost the work participation rate in Switzerland, particularly for women, said Jan-Egbert Sturm, head of the Zurich-based KOF Swiss Economic Institute.
“Such initiatives and ideas certainly are steps in the right direction,” said Sturm. “In a way it is enhancing the already flexible labor market conditions in Switzerland.”
Markus Deppeler, chief executive officer of Pflanzenoel.ch in Tegerfelden, Switzerland, said he’s looking to hire three Swiss pensioners in the coming months to take charge of marketing and business-to-business sales for his firm producing plant oils.
“Where young people lack the motivation to work, retired people want to work and they also bring priceless experience and know-how with them,” said Deppeler, adding that his business is too small to afford a full-time employee. “This should work in a global setting as well.”
While retirees don’t necessarily cost less to hire than other employees, companies aren’t liable of social security contributions on wages for pensioners below 1,400 francs per month, said Deppeler.
Ernst Siegrist, 73, who does gardening and carpentry, said Rent a Rentner is a “win-win situation” for both the state and retirees.
“Some pensioners can pay rent, health insurance and their car, but that’s about it,” he said in an interview. “Some really need the extra cash when they’re retired. Considering the amount of money that is spent for the social services, this could well be a scenario that’s positive for everyone.”
Retirees can also stay active and make new friends, said the website’s co-founder Duerrenberger, who is in talks to expand the project to neighboring countries.
“I’ll never forget the elderly lady who goes to the hairdresser once a week before the elderly gentleman she’s hired via our platform comes to do the gardening for an hour,” he said. “She usually books him for three hours, and the remainder of the time they drink tea together.”
The share of Swiss people age 65 and over is projected to climb to 24.2 percent of the population by 2030, from 17.4 percent of the nation’s 8 million inhabitants last year, according to the statistics office.
The online hiring agency may ease concerns about that trend, said ex-banker Haug, who put together a business plan for a veterinary practice, helped a dentist with a tax audit and advised a farmer on a farm takeover.
“In Switzerland, Rent a Rentner could definitely be part of a solution to the problems posed by an aging population,” she said. “Most of us want or have to do something meaningful after retiring and earn a little extra money.”