WELLINGTON, March 6 (Xinhua) -- Young New Zealanders will have to work longer and retire older under changes to the government's universal state pension scheme announced Monday.

The government cited the rising costs and aging population as reasons for lifting the age of entitlement for national superannuation (NZ Super) from 65 to 67.

Immigrants will also have to wait longer to qualify, with the required period of residency doubling from 10 years to 20 years.

The changes will be introduced from 2037, with the qualifying age rising by six months each year until it reaches 67 in 2040.

The change will not affect anyone born on or before June 30, 1972.

And it will be put to the test of a general election in September before being legislated early next year.

The change is set to be a major election issue as the government has suspended contributions to the nation's superannuation investment fund since 2009 and the main opposition Labour Party has vowed not to lift the age of entitlement.

"Gradually increasing the retirement age from 2037 will more fairly spread the costs and benefits of New Zealand Super between generations, ensure the scheme remains affordable into the future and give people time to adjust," Prime Minister Bill English said in a statement.

Even after the change, someone who retired at age 67 in 2040 was likely to receive a pension for longer than someone who retired at age 65 today, because the average life expectancy was increasing by about 1.3 years each decade.

"It will also bring New Zealand into line with other countries like Australia, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Germany and the United States, which are all moving to a retirement age of 67," said English.

The previous Prime Minister, John Key, who stepped down in December last year after eight years in power, had repeatedly stated that he would resign rather than raise the age of eligibility for national superannuation.

Finance Minister Steven Joyce said the government's previous position of not changing the age of eligibility was appropriate in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis, when New Zealanders were looking for certainty at a time when the government's finances were under pressure.

The proposed changes to the age of eligibility and the residency requirements were estimated to save the government more than 0.6 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), or 4 billion NZ dollars (2.8 billion U.S. dollars), annually once the changes were in place, Joyce said in a statement.

The scheme cost 4.8 percent of GDP last year, which compared to an average of 9 percent across the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

However with the increasing proportion of the population aged over 65, the cost was projected to rise to 8.4 percent of GDP by 2060.

Older people were also working longer, with more than 100,000 people aged 65 to 69 now in work, compared to 15,000 in 1997.

New Zealand introduced a universal state pension in 1940 and the current scheme dates from 1977.

The age of eligibility was progressively increased from 60 to 65 between 1992 and 2001.

Payments are set at 66 percent of the average weekly wage, and currently provide 335.50 NZ dollars (235.32 U.S. dollars) per person a week for a married couple or 443.50 NZ dollars (311.07 U.S. dollars) for a single person.

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