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France’s retirement age debate: What is the healthy life years metric?

President Macron’s plan to raise the age from 62 to 65 has become a key point in the presidential election, and this European measurement is part of the discussion

President Emmanuel Macron's plan to raise France's retirement age from 62 to 65 is controversial Pic: Hadrian / Shutterstock

The concept of ‘healthy life years’ (HLY) came up again recently when Emmanuel Macron, sitting president and candidate in this year’s presidential election, was asked about it in an interview while discussing his plans to raise France’s retirement age to 65.

“You know that the age of healthy life years in France is 64?” BFMTV journalist Bruce Toussaint asked Mr Macron on April 11.

It is not the first time that the concept has come up in debates about changing France’s retirement age. 

Mr Macron has for several years been attempting to overhaul France’s pension system and has stated his intention to raise the retirement age from 62 to 65. 

More recently, he has said that he is willing to be flexible on this policy and does not need to implement it immediately. This is likely an attempt to curry favour with left-leaning voters, who are against raising the age and are seen as key in winning the second round of the election.

Read more: French election: The chase is on for Mélenchon’s 7.7 million voters

Marine Le Pen, who he will face in the presidential election run-off on April 24, wants to keep the age at 62. 

She also raised the question of HLY (espérance de vie en bonne santé, in French) in the run-up to the 2017 presidential election, which she eventually lost to Mr Macron. 

Here we look at what it is and why it is important when discussing retirement age.

What is the ‘healthy life years’ metric?

HLY is also known as disability-free life expectancy or Sullivan's Index. It is a European structural indicator and is one of the measures used to gauge a population's health and well-being.

It is not the same as ‘life expectancy’, which offers estimates on how long an average man or woman in a country can expect to live. 

Instead, healthy life years measures the number of remaining years that an average person of a certain age is expected to live without disability, impairment or hindrance to their normal life.

The metric provides two estimates, one is a person’s remaining healthy life years at the moment of their birth, and the other is a person’s remaining healthy life years from the age of 65. It is calculated for men and women. 

French statistics agency Drees, which comes under the Ministry of Solidarity and Health, defines it as:

“The number of years a person can expect to live without being limited in their daily activities.”

This limitation can be either from illness or physical impairments. 

HLY is measured both in France by Drees and in Europe by Eurostat. 

In France, the data is based on a survey of 16,000 households.

What is France’s ‘healthy life years’ expectancy?

Contrary to what BFMTV journalist Mr Toussaint told President Macron, France’s remaining healthy life years at birth is on average just over 65, the most recent data from Drees, published in 2020, shows.

This is broken down into 65.9 years for women and 64.4 years for men. 

Between 2008 and 2020, the HLY for women in France increased by one year and five months and men’s increased by one year and eight months. 

A 65-year-old woman in France could, in 2020, expect to live 12.1 years more without disabilities, and 18.1 more years without severe disabilities. 

A man of the same age in 2020 could expect to live 10.6 years more without disabilities, and 15.7 years more without severe disabilities. 

The HLY at 65 for women increased by two years and one month between 2008 and 2020, and one year and 11 months for men. 

France’s HLY score is about average in the EU. The table below shows the latest EU figures, which are from 2019. 

Is HLY important in the debate around retirement age?

Raising France’s retirement age from 62 to 65 has proven a very controversial proposal.

But it is currently low compared to its neighbours and to other EU countries.

For context, the UK’s legal retirement age is 65 and is set to rise to 67 by 2028. 

Germany’s is 65 years and seven months, Spain’s is 65, Italy’s 67 and Belgium’s 65.

In Sweden, it is 61, and in a few other countries the retirement age for men and women is different, and women are able to retire at 60. 

Most countries have recently or are planning to increase the legal retirement age as people live longer and healthcare improves. 

But deciding what age to raise it to is tricky and should be taken seriously. 

French anthropologist and author of the 2020 book ‘De l'inégalité des vies’, about inequality in different people’s life expectancy, said that the HLY measurement is important when considering the retirement age.

“Today, the poorest contribute to paying the pensions of the richest. The retirement age should be calculated according to HLY, which the reform envisaged by the President of the Republic does not take into consideration," he told Le Monde

Jean-Marie Robine, demographer at the National Institute for Health and Medical Research (Inserm) and a specialist in the ageing society also said it is an important metric. 

“If we want a fair society, and if we can't stop death or illness, we can at least act on the retirement age," he said. 

Emmanuelle Cambois, a researcher at the Institut national d'études démographiques (INED), said that raising the retirement age could lead to unfair consequences for the worst-off. 

“If careers are extended, those who are most vulnerable due to “finances and/or hardship may not be able to reach the full retirement age. 

“What they would not cost in pensions, they would cost in unemployment and sickness benefits,” she said. 

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