Sunday, 27 November 2016

Are we all really expected to work until we drop?

Catherine Bennett in The Guardian


As Tony Blair repeatedly confirms, and John Cridland notes in his interim report on the state pension age, a “significant” number of workers who left the labour market before the age of 63 “wish they had postponed their retirement”.

In many ways, the response to Blair’s longing for a second act, in full knowledge of his power irredeemably to contaminate any political project, is a timely reminder to younger workers, as the retirement age rises, of the need to plan ahead. Leave early – whether for reasons of ill health, burn-out or for being universally denounced as an avaricious, world-blighting menace – and it may prove almost impossible, as the TUC recently noted, for the older worker to find another job. 

But with his determination to defy the above obstacles, Blair is also a terrific example of the model, can-do, older worker. One whose undimmed desire to serve – or do incalculable harm to his own side – so compellingly supports the proposition, one especially dear to British politicians, that increased longevity should naturally be accompanied by an ever-extended working life. Cridland, the former Confederation of British Industry chief, is the latest to reassess the retirement age and is still consulting for a report due next year.

As it stands, the state’s reward for scientific advances that should usher millions more people into their 90s is the raised retirement age of 68 (rescheduled for 2041), the highest in the OECD. Behind Cridland’s interim report is the expectation, supposing longevity keeps increasing, that it should be raised again.

Quite why the British older worker should, if only in this respect, have become synonymous with drudgery, has never, so far as I can discover, been explained. Maybe decades of strong tea are what helps our oldest people to become, with their furious, late-onset capacity for record-breaking productivity, the envy of the world. Or maybe younger workers, or the politicians who should represent their interests, are lamentably passive. As it is, with their proved success in delivering, by adjusting the retirement age, what are, in effect, huge fines on generations too youthful and busy to notice, there is every reason for British politicians to continue to impose penalties for age-defying insouciance.

And with so much to divert public attention, now is the perfect time for the pensions minister, Richard Harrington, to mention that he has asked the Government Actuary’s Department to recalculate life expectancy and project what might be a nifty way of relieving younger generations of a few more hundred billion pounds – if the percentage of adult life (from the age of 20) considered eligible for state-pensioned retirement were lowered from the current 33.3% to 32%. “People are living and working longer than ever before,” Harrington said. “That is why it is important we get this right to ensure the system stays fair and sustainable for generations to come.” Or, alternatively, until modern medicine buys the government another year or two’s pension deferral.

Supposing the lower figure were adopted, a pension consultant told the Telegraph, the government “would struggle to find a more politically painless way to take £8,000 off tens of millions of people”. Moreover, if and when affected workers began to make a fuss, many of those responsible would, themselves, be safely retired on final salary pensions, and protected, as Women Against State Pension Inequality protests – by 50s-born women obliged to work beyond 60 – has shown, by intergenerational indifference.

Described by the New Statesman, in its article “Tony Blair’s Unfinished Business”, as looking “anything but broken” – and allegedly reminiscent of the figure whose cojones were so esteemed by George Bush – the tanned Blair, no less than orangeTrump, is, in contrast, a poster boy for the five decades of toil that will, if some pension lobbyists have their way, become the norm in the UK and the US. Trump’s example was somewhat compromised, in this respect, by his age-related insulting of Hillary Clinton. “Importantly,” he said, “she [also] lacks the mental and physical stamina to take on Isis and all the many adversaries we face.”

As many future, almost 70-year-old workers may eventually discover, strategies for reducing age prejudice and intergenerational resentment have failed – largely through not existing – to keep pace with deferments of state pensionable age and the end of obligatory retirement. Outside politics and the BBC, and anywhere else Farage’s “big silverback gorillas” are not delightedly deferred to, the lingering presence of pension-defying, grandparent-age colleagues can, one gathers, be distinctly unwelcome to co-workers – and not only those hoping for promotion within the next century or so.

The recent proposal, by the Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway, that older graduates consider, like her, a pre-retirement switch to teaching elicited some wry responses from members of a profession where the average retirement age is 59. For instance: “Teaching is a young person’s game.”
The word “ageism” does not appear in Cridland’s 100-page report, a document that may not only cheer politicians praying for the go-ahead on 70, but reassure anyone who fears – whether from experience, or from listening too closely to health officials, or from reading too much literature – that advancing age and physical decline are in any way connected.

“Old age isn’t a battle,” thinks one of Philip Roth’s ageing protagonists. “Old age is a massacre.” Not any more, to judge by the cheerful Cridland. “Longevity is changing the pensions landscape.”

A decade after Roth’s Everyman, Cridland depicts many of us as promisingly situated for the payment or, rather, non-payment, of pensions, since, with “quite substantial” geographical variations, “healthy life expectancy (the proportion of life someone can expect to spend in ‘good’ or ‘very good’ health) appears to be keeping track with overall life expectancy”. If a man aged 65 can expect around nine years of good health, some will ask: why not use up over half of those at work?

It is for academics and actuaries to judge how Cridland’s analysis squares with the gloomier conclusions of a 2015 government report: Trends in Life Expectancy and Healthy Life Expectancy. Its key finding: “Increases in health expectancies in the UK are not keeping pace with gains in life expectancy, particularly at older ages.”

Still, if Cridland is willing to factor into his pension recommendations the assumption of protracted liveliness in Britain’s long living over 65s, Generations X and Y may want to consider how this sunny outlook might feature in their own career plans. With flexibility on the government’s part they could offer to work, say, between 70 and 80, later if the actuaries agree, in exchange for a state pension in their 20s or 30s. Just in case, through sheer over-optimism, a Cridland-influenced proposal keeps them indentured until the last five years, or less, of healthy life.

Any interested generations have until 31 December to tell Mr Cridland how they feel about becoming the oldest non-pensioners in the developed world.

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