ATHENS — Vasia Veremi may be only 28, but as a hairdresser in Athens, she is keenly aware that, under a current law that treats her job as hazardous to her health, she has the right to retire with a full pension at age 50.
“I use a hundred different chemicals every day — dyes, ammonia, you name it,” she said. “You think there’s no risk in that?”
“People should be able to retire at a decent age,” Ms. Veremi added. “We are not made to live 150 years.”
Perhaps not, but it is still difficult to explain to outsiders why the Greek government has identified at least 580 job categories deemed to be hazardous enough to merit retiring early — at age 50 for women and 55 for men.
Greece’s patchwork system of early retirement has contributed to the out-of-control state spending that has led to Europe’s sovereign debt crisis. Its pension promises will grow sharply in coming years, and investors can see the country has not set aside enough to cover those costs, making it harder for Greece to borrow at a reasonable rate.
As a consequence of decades of bargains struck between strong unions and weak governments, Greece has promised early retirement to about 700,000 employees, or 14 percent of its work force, giving it an average retirement age of 61, one of the lowest in Europe.
The law includes dangerous jobs like coal mining and bomb disposal. But it also covers radio and television presenters, who are thought to be at risk from the bacteria on their microphones, and musicians playing wind instruments, who must contend with gastric reflux as they puff and blow.
And Greece may be an early indicator of troubles to come. Bigger countries like Germany, France, Spain and Italy have relied for decades on a munificent state financed by a range of stiff taxes to keep the political peace. Now, governments are being pressed to re-examine their commitments to generous pensions over extended retirements because the downturn has suddenly pushed at least part of these hidden costs to the surface.
The situation in the United States is different but also painful. The government will face its own fiscal reckoning, analysts say, as 78 million baby boomers begin drawing on Social Security and Medicare programs to support them in retirement. Without some combination of higher taxes, benefit reductions or an increase in the retirement age, both programs will run short of money to make their promised payments within the next few decades. And many American states are woefully behind on funding their pension obligations for public employees.
In Europe, the conflict has already erupted on the streets, with workers demanding that generous retirement policies be kept while governments press to pare pensions and raise retirement ages because taxpayers cannot bear any additional weight and creditors will no longer finance excessive borrowing.
The problem goes well beyond how to keep up payments and deal with budget deficits resulting from the financial crisis. Because of generous promises, unfunded pension liabilities in Europe far outweigh the stated debt that governments owe creditors, which have caught Greece and several other weak European nations in a borrowing vise.
According to research by Jagadeesh Gokhale, an economist at the Cato Institute in Washington, bringing Greece’s pension obligations onto its balance sheet would show that the government’s debt is in reality equal to 875 percent of its gross domestic product, which is the broadest measure of a nation’s economic output. That would be the highest debt level among the 16 nations that use the euro, and far above Greece’s official debt level of 113 percent.
Other countries have obscured their total obligations as well. In France, where the official debt level is 76 percent of economic output, total debt rises to 549 percent once all of its current pension promises are taken into account. And in Germany, the current debt level of 71.9 percent would soar to 418 percent.
Mr. Gokhale, like many other economists, says he believes that this is a more appropriate way to assess a country’s debt level because it underscores the extent to which the cost of providing for rapidly aging populations, if left unchanged, will add to already troubling debt burdens.
“You have to look ahead and see how pension expenditures are rising in comparison to the revenues needed to finance them,” he said. “It’s not just Greece; all major European countries are facing pension shortfalls. It is a very difficult challenge because it involves selling pain to current voters.”
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Niki Kitsantonis contributed reporting.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: March 15, 2010
An article on Friday about pensions in Europe gave an incorrect figure for Germany’s current debt as a percentage of gross domestic product. It is 71.9 percent, as the accompanying chart said, not 69 percent.
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