Social protection statistics - pension expenditure and pension beneficiaries

Data extracted in October 2018.

Planned article update: October 2020.


In 2015, just over one quarter (26.0 %) of the EU population were pension beneficiaries.

Expenditure on pensions was equivalent to 12.8 % of the EU’s GDP in 2015.

Expenditure on pensions, 2015

This article presents statistics on pension expenditure and pension beneficiaries in the European Union (EU) collected through the European system of integrated social protection statistics (ESSPROS).

In 2015, just over a quarter of the EU-28 population (26.0 %) received at least one pension (see Figure 1, data exclude Poland). The proportion of the population receiving a pension was highest in Lithuania (32.4 %) and also stood above 30.0 % in Estonia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Luxembourg and Latvia. By contrast, the share of the population that were beneficiaries of at least one pension was below 20.0 % in Ireland and Malta, with a low of 16.2 % in Cyprus.

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Interpretation of data

Statistics on pensions provide valuable information on a number of issues of critical importance for policymaking, including, for example, the current and future burden on public finances and the adequacy of pensions. It is essential, therefore, that users fully understand what these data show in order to be able to interpret the figures correctly.

Three general points should be noted.

  • The definition of pensions, as used within the framework of ESSPROS does not correspond exactly to the definitions applied in each country; as such, the figures published by Eurostat may differ from those published by the relevant national authorities. For example, pensions published by national authorities may be restricted to one (or more) specific types, for example, the old age pension, while the scope of pensions within ESSPROS is much wider (see Data sources).
  • The data presented here may represent aggregates of multiple types of pensions, granted for various purposes, under different conditions, and to different groups with different levels of entitlement. For example, the statistics may combine: first pillar (state) and second pillar (occupational) benefits; basic, complementary and supplementary benefits; benefits that are conditional on withdrawal from the labour market and benefits that can be received in addition to income from employment; social security benefits and social assistance benefits, as well as means-tested and non-means-tested benefits. The specific combination of pensions covered by such aggregates varies between countries, which limits the extent to which it is possible to compare the situation in different countries.
  • ESSPROS excludes — under the general definition it gives of social protection — pensions in the form of insurance policies, taken out through the initiative of private individuals or households for their own interest (in other words, personal or third pillar pensions).

Pension beneficiaries in the EU

Who is counted?

In the majority of the EU Member States (21 out of 28), some people are beneficiaries receiving more than one type of pension. For example, it is possible, depending on national rules, for a beneficiary to simultaneously receive a survivors’ pension and an old-age pension.

Accounting for this double-counting is not straightforward in practice, and is therefore often done using estimates. An approximation of the extent to which this type of ‘double-counting’ occurs between the seven types of pension — disability pension; early retirement benefit due to reduced capacity to work; old-age pension; anticipated old-age pension; partial pension; survivors’ pension and unemployment — is shown in Table 1. According to national quality reports on social protection pension beneficiaries, double-counting of this type does not exist in 10 of the countries that are covered by ESSPROS.

Table 1: Share of pension beneficiaries receiving more than one type of pension, 2015
Source: Eurostat (spr_pns_ben)

All figures on national pension beneficiaries refer to the number of individuals receiving at least one type of pension; in other words, the figures are adjusted to take account of any double-counting. There are three further points to bear in mind when considering data on pension beneficiaries for individual countries.

  • The number of beneficiaries for each country includes beneficiaries who are resident in other countries, and therefore who are excluded from the resident population that is often used as a reference population for making comparisons across countries. The relative number of non-resident beneficiaries varies (sometimes considerably) between countries.
  • The information presented for the number of beneficiaries refers to the situation at the end of a year and therefore excludes persons who may have been in receipt of a pension for part of the year but not at the end of the year; the statistics presented are therefore likely to understate the total number of beneficiaries during the calendar year.
  • EU aggregates for the total number of beneficiaries are simply obtained as the sum of the results for the individual EU Member States and are not adjusted to take into account any form of international double-counting; the total number of beneficiaries for the EU is therefore likely to be overstated.

The majority of pension beneficiaries are receiving old-age pensions

In 2015, over three quarters (77.9 %) of pension beneficiaries in the EU-28 (excluding Poland) were in receipt of old-age pension benefits, in other words, of pensions that start to be paid when the legal or standard retirement age is reached.

This share varies between countries, depending on a number of factors, including: the relative weight of older persons (aged 65+) in the total population; the relative importance and characteristics of other types of pension benefits; the legal retirement age (which may be different for men and women and is tending to increase in some countries); the extent to which pensions may be paid before the normal retirement age (for example, to people who work in sectors characterised by challenging working conditions); the relative number of non-resident pension beneficiaries (this is thought to have a relatively small impact on the data of most countries).

The variation in age and pension structures can be illustrated (see Figure 1) by comparing the number of people receiving at least one form of pension with the share of the population aged 65 or over (which may be used as a proxy for the retirement age).

In Luxembourg and Slovakia, the share of the total population who were pension beneficiaries (receiving at least one type of pension) was at least 1.8 times as high as the share of the total population that was aged 65 or over (and resident in each country); this was also the case in Switzerland and Turkey. At the other end of the scale, the share of pension beneficiaries was less than 1.1 times as high as the share of the total population aged 65 or over in Malta, Cyprus and Spain. This variation between countries highlights the differences in the scope of pension benefits and demonstrates some of the potential difficulties of making comparisons/inferences about specific social benefits.

Comparing the proportion of the population aged 65 or over with that receiving an old-age pension (excluding anticipated and partial pensions) generally results in a lower ratio. The variations observed reflect, among other factors, the extent to which the legal or standard retirement age diverges from 65; the relative number of non-resident recipients of old-age pensions; the proportion of the population continuing to work beyond the legal or standard retirement age. There were several cases — in particular, Spain, Malta and Croatia — where the differences were such that it seems unlikely that the factors referred to above can provide, alone, an explanation. The share of people receiving an old-age pension (excluding anticipated and partial pensions) was considerably lower than the share of the population aged 65 or over in these three EU Member States, implying that many older people did not receive an old-age pension. In practice, however, many of these elderly persons are likely to receive another type of pension. For example, in Spain, the low share primarily reflects the difference between the sexes in terms of the types of pension received. In 2015, survivors’ pensions covered more than half (53.6 %) of all Spanish women in receipt of a pension, whereas 50.5 % of received an old-age pension; note that some Spanish women may receive both types. This demonstrates why it is important to bear in mind that old-age pensions are only one part of the national pension system and that, depending on national legislation and practices, an elderly person may receive an old-age pension, a disability pension or a survivors’ pension (or a combination of these). While disability pensions paid to pensioners above the defined legal or standard retirement age should — according to the ESSPROS methodology — be reported as old-age pensions, survivors’ pensions paid to the same age group are not reported in this way. Moreover, in some cases, technical difficulties have resulted from the requirement to split disability pensions by function according to the age of recipients and this has not always been respected.

Figure 1: Share of population who are beneficiaries of at least one pension and share of population aged 65 and over, 2015
(% of total population)
Source: Eurostat (spr_pns_ben) and (demo_pjanbroad)

Expenditure on pensions in the EU

The information presented in this section relates to gross expenditure data for pensions. Note that these statistics may not fully reflect the actual cost of pensions provision or the amount actually received by pension beneficiaries (as some pensioners may be liable to taxes and/or social contributions, which has the effect of returning some of the gross amount disbursed back to the government).

In 2015, some EUR 1 845 billion was spent across the EU-28 (excluding Poland) on pensions. When expressed in relation to GDP, EU-28 expenditure on pensions (again excluding Poland) represented 12.8 % of total economic output in 2015 (see Figure 2).

The relative importance of expenditure on pensions varied considerably between the EU Member States. In 2015, this ratio peaked in Greece at 17.8 % of GDP, while there were two other Member States — Italy and France — where expenditure was at least 15.0 % of GDP. At the other end of the range, Latvia, Malta, Lithuania and Ireland each reported that expenditure on pensions accounted for less than 8.0 % of their GDP; this was also the case in Turkey.

Looking in more detail, pension benefits related to old-age represented the largest part of overall expenditure on pensions in each of the EU Member States in 2015. The distribution of expenditure between the different types of pension (old-age, disability, survivors and unemployment) varied as a function of differences in the design of social protection systems. It is, however, important to note that a pension can serve multiple functions simultaneously, but may be recorded under a single function based on its primary purpose; this may affect the distribution of expenditure.

Figure 2: Expenditure on pensions, by type of pension, 2015
(%, relative to GDP)
Source: Eurostat (spr_exp_pens) and (nama_10_gdp)

Linking expenditure and beneficiaries

Expenditure per pension beneficiary — what the data mean

Data on pension expenditure and on the numbers of pension beneficiaries can be combined to provide information detailing pension expenditure per beneficiary (for those receiving at least one type of pension). The interpretation of such figures is not, however, straightforward and requires a detailed understanding of the benefits included in the data and their characteristics.

It is important to be aware that pension expenditure per beneficiary does not necessarily reflect the level or adequacy of individual pension provisions in the EU Member States. Furthermore, these figures are based on aggregates of gross expenditure and of beneficiaries for the wide range of different types of pension available within each country, granted under different circumstances and serving various distinct purposes. For example, the statistics presented relate to aggregate figures, whereas invariably, different pension schemes provide different levels of benefits, often reflecting contribution levels that are not necessarily comparable across countries or which are not even uniform within countries. For this reason, combining data on overall expenditure and the total number of beneficiaries is not advised, whereas comparing information on expenditure and the number of beneficiaries at a more detailed level is likely to provide more meaningful results. Nonetheless, it is important to be aware that even at a more detailed level, the data often represent aggregates and the characteristics of their constituents may vary considerably.

Distribution of pension expenditure and beneficiaries by type of pension

While the sum of the expenditure on the different types of pension is always equal to total expenditure, this is not the case for beneficiaries, as an individual can receive multiple pensions simultaneously (which leads to double-counting if the numbers of beneficiaries for each type of pension are added up). Such cases typically involve individuals receiving both an old-age pension and a survivors’ pension, because disability pensions paid to those above the legal or standard retirement age are, in principle, recorded as old-age pensions.

Figure 3 classifies pensions, at a first level, according to four main ESSPROS functions, namely: disability, old-age, survivors and unemployment. Of these, pensions relating to old-age were in 2015 by far the largest category across the EU-28 (excluding Poland), accounting for 79.9 % of total expenditure and 80.7 % of pension beneficiaries. Survivors’ pensions were the second largest category, accounting for 11.3 % of expenditure and 20.4 % of beneficiaries, followed by disability pensions (8.6 % of expenditure and 11.8 % of beneficiaries) and unemployment pensions (0.3 % of expenditure and 0.2 % of beneficiaries).

A more detailed analysis may be performed for seven different ESSPROS categories: with the main heading broken down into old-age pensions, anticipated old-age pensions and partial pensions, while the disability function may be broken down into disability pensions and early retirement benefits paid due to reduced capacity to work. Old-age pensions (excluding anticipated and partial pensions) were, by far, the largest of the seven ESSPROS categories, their share of total expenditure stood at 76.8 % across the EU-28 (excluding Poland) in 2015, while disability pensions accounted for 6.6 % of total expenditure.

Figure 3: Share of pension expenditure and share of pension beneficiaries, by type of pension, EU-28, 2015
(% of total)
Source: Eurostat (spr_pns_ben) and (spr_exp_pens)

Pension expenditure per beneficiary by type of pension

Pension expenditure per beneficiary (for those persons receiving at least one pension) varied considerably across the different types of pensions (see Figure 4). In 2015, expenditure per beneficiary across the EU-28 (excluding Poland) averaged EUR 20 287 for unemployment pensions, EUR 15 372 for anticipated old-age pensions and EUR 14 853 for old-age pensions.

It may appear counter-intuitive that the highest expenditure per beneficiary was recorded for anticipated old-age pensions, while expenditure per beneficiary was EUR 520 lower for old-age pensions, given that benefits for early retirees are typically reduced to compensate for the extension of the period over which their pension are (expected) to be paid. However, anticipated pensions are more likely to be contribution-based pensions, which tend to offer higher levels of benefits than non-contributory pensions. Furthermore, it is possible that individuals who have made a higher total amount of contributions over their working lives, and are thus entitled to relatively high pensions, may be more likely to make a claim prior to reaching retirement age because they meet minimum contribution requirements, where applicable, and are more likely to be able to afford to have their benefits reduced. Expenditure on partial pensions, meanwhile, amounted to just EUR 2 897 per beneficiary on average, which was considerably lower than for any other type of pension (as may be expected, given that recipients of these types of pensions are still receiving some form of income from employment).

Figure 4: Average pension expenditure per beneficiary, by type of pension, EU-28, 2015
Source: Eurostat (spr_pns_ben) and (spr_exp_pens)

In 2015, pension expenditure per beneficiary for those in receipt of an old-age pension varied considerably across the EU Member States, ranging from a high of EUR 26 555 in Luxembourg down to EUR 1 800 in Bulgaria (see Figure 5). As such, a recipient of an old-age pension in Luxembourg received a (gross) pension that was 1.8 times as high as the EU-28 average (EUR 14 853; excluding Poland). By contrast, average expenditure on old-age pensions across the EU-28 was 8.3 times as high as that recorded in Bulgaria. Some of these differences may be attributed to different price levels in the EU Member States, for example, the overall cost of living is higher in Luxembourg than it is in Bulgaria.

With this in mind, the data shown in Figure 5 are also presented in terms of purchasing power standards (PPS), an artificial currency unit which adjusts for price level differences between countries. Based on the series in PPS terms, Austria recorded the highest average expenditure per pension beneficiary, at 19 893 PPS. This was 4.7 times as high as the lowest level of expenditure, as recorded in Bulgaria (4 275 PPS).

Figure 5: Average pension expenditure per beneficiary for old-age pensions, 2015
Source: Eurostat (spr_pns_ben) and (spr_exp_pens)

It is important to reiterate that these figures on pension expenditure per beneficiary do not necessarily reflect the level or adequacy of individual old age pensions in different countries. There are several reasons for this. First, as noted previously, the figures are based respectively on aggregates of expenditure and of beneficiaries of the wide range of old age pensions available within each country, granted under different circumstances and serving various distinct purposes. Invariably, different pension schemes provide different levels of benefits. The typical combinations of pensions in each country will have a significant influence on the figures recorded at an aggregate level. Second, the figures are based on gross expenditure and do not take into account the effect of taxes and social contributions (where relevant), which varies both between and within countries. For example, while in one country all pensions may be tax free, in another, taxes may be applied to particular types of pensions.

Trends in pension expenditure and beneficiaries

Between 2008 and 2015, the total number of pension beneficiaries in the EU-28 (receiving at least one type of pension) increased overall by 3.0 %, while pension expenditure (measured in constant price terms) rose by 13.4 % (see Figure 6). The growth in the number of pension beneficiaries was modest and more or less constant — aside from a small reduction in 2012 — during the whole of the period under consideration (2008-2015), while expenditure rose at a rapid pace in 2009 (up 5.6 %), followed by relatively modest increases between 2010 and 2012 (the slowdown in the rate of growth for pension expenditures may be linked to the sovereign debt crisis which emerged in late 2009), although there were signs of renewed growth in pension expenditures from 2013 onwards (as the rate of growth quickened somewhat).

The data show different trends for the different categories of pensions defined within ESSPROS by function. The overall growth in the number of EU-28 pension beneficiaries was entirely related to an increased number of beneficiaries for old-age pensions, which grew consistently between 2008 and 2015, up by 6.0 % overall. The increase in the number of beneficiaries of old-age pensions in the EU-28 was slightly offset by a decline in the number of beneficiaries of disability and survivors’ pensions, which fell by 3.9 % and 1.4 % respectively.

Expenditure on pensions across the EU-28 rose in 2009 (in constant price terms): up 6.3 % for old-age pensions, 1.9 % for disability pensions and 5.6 % for survivors’ pensions. Between 2009 and 2015, expenditure on old-age pensions in the EU-28 continued to rise, albeit at a slower rate (with signs of expenditure increasing at a somewhat faster pace towards the end of the series). Expenditure on disability pensions fell for four consecutive years during the period from 2010 to 2013, while expenditure on survivors’ pensions fell for three consecutive years (2010 to 2012). While there was a relatively clear rebound in expenditure for disability pensions in 2014 and 2015, the pattern of development for survivors’ pensions was less clear with little difference in the levels of expenditure in 2012 and 2015.

Pension expenditure per beneficiary (also in constant price terms) rose across the EU-28 by 4.8 % in 2009. However, there was no overall change in pension expenditure per beneficiary during the following two years, with pensions (in real terms) stagnating during the height of the global financial and economic crisis. During the period from 2012 to 2015, there was renewed growth in pension expenditure per beneficiary in the EU-28, driven almost exclusively by increases for old-age pensioners, although expenditure per beneficiary also increased for disability pensions in both 2014 and 2015.

Figure 6: Pension beneficiaries, expenditure and expenditure per beneficiary, EU-28, 2008-2015
Source: Eurostat (spr_pns_ben), (spr_exp_pens) and (nama_10_gdp)

Data sources

All of the data presented in this article are from the European system of integrated social protection statistics (ESSPROS), specifically the core system and the module on the number of pension beneficiaries. These data are collected from national statistical institutes and/or ministries of social affairs in each country and are generally compiled from administrative sources. Regulation (EC) No 458/2007 of the European Parliament and of the Council provides the legal basis for the data collection and a series of Commission Regulations provide further specifications for the implementation of this Regulation. The concept of a ‘pension’ as used in the ESSPROS framework and throughout this article is defined as periodic cash payments that address long-term risks or needs through income replacement in case of full or partial withdrawal from, or inability to participate in, the labour market. These are intended to provide the means to support a minimum standard of living and are clearly distinguished from allowances that cover additional costs associated with old-age and/or sickness or disability (for example, the need for long-term care). ESSPROS identifies seven distinct types of pensions. Data on these are reported according to a two-tier classification system. The first-level breakdown classifies pensions according to four different ESSPROS functions: disability, old-age, survivors and unemployment. A more detailed second-level distinguishes between different types of pensions, as follows.


  • Disability pension: periodic payments intended to maintain or support the income of someone below the legal or standard retirement age, as established in the reference scheme, who suffers from a disability which impairs his or her ability to work or earn above a minimum amount laid down by legislation.
  • Early retirement in case of reduced ability to work: periodic payments to older workers who retire before reaching the legal or standard retirement age, as established in the reference scheme, as a result of reduced ability to work; these payments normally cease when the beneficiary becomes entitled to an old-age pension.


  • Old-age pension: periodic payments intended to: i) maintain the income of the beneficiary after retirement from paid employment at the legal or standard age; or ii) support the income of elderly persons (excluding where payments are made for a limited period only).
  • Anticipated old-age pension: periodic payments intended to maintain the income of beneficiaries who retire before the legal or standard age, as established in the relevant scheme; this may occur with or without a reduction of the normal pension.
  • Partial retirement pension: periodic payments to those above the legal or standard retirement age who remain in paid employment but with reduced working hours or whose income from employment is below a set ceiling; in such cases, individuals typically receive a portion of the full retirement pension.


  • Survivors’ pension: periodic payments to people whose entitlement results from their relationship with a deceased person protected by a pension scheme (for example, widows, widowers and orphans).


  • Early retirement for labour market reasons: periodic payments to older workers who retire before reaching the legal or standard retirement age due to unemployment or redundancy resulting from economic measures, such as the restructuring of an industrial sector or of a business; these payments normally cease when the beneficiary becomes entitled to an old-age pension.

Within each of these seven types of pensions, specific pension benefits may be described as basic or supplementary/complementary. Basic benefits guarantee a base level of protection (based on the number of years of contributions, work or residency) but not necessarily up to the level of resources required for a minimum, socially-acceptable, standard of living. Supplementary/complementary benefits top-up basic benefits, extend the coverage of basic benefits, or replace basic benefits where the recipient does not fulfil the initial entitlement conditions.


An ageing population presents a major challenge for pension systems in all EU Member States and could potentially have significant consequences for the stability of public finances and future economic growth. This situation was further aggravated by the financial and economic crisis, which stifled economic growth, reduced employment levels and created considerable financial instability in several EU economies. Consequently there has been pressure to develop and implement strategies to adjust pension systems, so they may cope with changing economic and demographic circumstances. As a result, statistics on pensions are more important than ever before.

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