We are entering the age of no retirement. The journey into that chilling reality is not a long one: the first generation who will experience it are now in their 40s and 50s. They grew up assuming they could expect the kind of retirement their parents enjoyed – stopping work in their mid-60s on a generous income, with time and good health enough to fulfil long-held dreams. For them, it may already be too late to make the changes necessary to retire at all.
In 2010, British women got their state pension at 60 and men got theirs at 65. By October 2020, both sexes will have to wait until they are 66. By 2028, the age will rise again, to 67. And the creep will continue. By the early 2060s, people will still be working in their 70s, but according to research, we will all need to keep working into our 80s if we want to enjoy the same standard of retirement as our parents.
This is what a world without retirement looks like. Workers will be unable to down tools, even when they can barely hold them with hands gnarled by age-related arthritis. The raising of the state retirement age will create a new social inequality. Those living in areas in which the average life expectancy is lower than the state retirement age (south-east England has the highest average life expectancy, Scotland the lowest) will subsidise those better off by dying before they can claim the pension they have contributed to throughout their lives. In other words, wealthier people become beneficiaries of what remains of the welfare state.
Retirement is likely to be sustained in recognisable form in the short and medium term. Looming on the horizon, however, is a complete dismantling of this safety net.
For those of pensionable age who cannot afford to retire, but cannot continue working – because of poor health, or ageing parents who need care, or because potential employers would rather hire younger workers – the great progress Britain has made in tackling poverty among the elderly over the last two decades will be reversed. This group is liable to suffer the sort of widespread poverty not seen in Britain for 30 to 40 years.
Many now in their 20s will be unable to save throughout their youth and middle age because of increasingly casualised employment, student debt and rising property prices. By the time they are old, members of this new generation of poor pensioners are liable to be, on average, far worse off than the average poor pensioner today.
A series of factors has contributed to this situation: increased life expectancy, woeful pension planning by successive governments, the end of the final-salary pension scheme (in which people got two-thirds of their final salary as a pension) and our own failure to save.
For two months, as part of an experiment by the Guardian in collaborative reporting, I have been investigating what retirement looks like today – and what it might look like for the next wave of retirees, their children and grandchildren. The evidence reveals a sinkhole beneath the state’s provision of pensions. Under the weight of our vastly increased longevity, retirement – one of our most cherished institutions – is in danger of collapsing into it.
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Many of those contemplating retirement are alarmed by the new landscape. A 62-year-old woman, who is for the first time in her life struggling to pay her mortgage (and wishes to remain anonymous), told me: “I am more stressed now than I was in my 30s. I lived on a very tight budget then, but I was young and could cope emotionally. I don’t mean to sound bitter, but I never thought I would feel this scared of the future at my age. I’m not remotely materialistic and have never wanted a fancy lifestyle. But not knowing if I will be without a home in the next few months is a very scary place to be.”
And it is not just the older generation who fear old age. Adam Palfrey is 30, with three children and a disabled wife who cannot work. “I must confess, I am absolutely terrified of retirement,” he told me. “I have nothing stashed away. Savings are out of the question. I only just earn enough that, with housing benefit, disability living allowance and tax credits, I manage to keep our heads above water. I work every hour I can just to keep things afloat. There’s no way I could keep this up aged 70-plus, just so that my partner and I can live a basic life. As for my three children … God knows. I can scarcely bring myself to think about it.”
It is not news that the population is ageing. What is remarkable is that we have failed to prepare the ground for this inevitable change. Life expectancy in Britain is growing by a dramatic five hours a day. Thanks to a period of relative peace in the UK, low infant mortality and continual medical advances, over the past two decades the life expectancy of babies born here has increased by some five years. (A baby born at the end of my eight-week The new retirement series has a life expectancy almost 12 days longer than a baby born at the start of it.)
Dr Peter Jarvis and Sue Perkins at Bletchley Park. Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian
In 2014, the average age of the UK population exceeded 40 for the first time – up from 33.9 in 1974. In little more than a decade, half of the country’s population will be aged over 50. This will transform Britain – and it is no mere blip; the trend will continue as life expectancy increases. This year marked a demographic turning point in the UK. As the baby-boom generation (now aged between 53 and 71) entered retirement, for the first time since the early 1980s there were more people either too old or too young to work than there were of working age.
The number of people in the UK aged 85 or more is expected to more than double in the next 25 years. By 2040, nearly one in seven Britons will be over 75. Half of all children born in the UK are predicted to live to 103. Some 10 million of us currently alive in the UK (and 130 million throughout Europe) are likely to live past the age of 100.
Governments see raising the state retirement age as a way to cover the cost of an ageing population
The challenges are considerable. The tax imbalance that comes with an ageing population, whose tax contribution falls far short of their use of services, will rise to £15bn a year by 2060. Covering this gap will cost the equivalent of a 4p income tax rise for the working-age population.
It is easy to see why governments might regard raising the state retirement age as a way to cover the cost of an ageing population. A successful pursuit of full employment of people into their late 60s could maintain the ratio of workers to non-workers for many decades to come. And were the employment rate for older workers to match that of the 30-40 age group, the additional tax payments could be as much as £88.4bn. According to PwC’s Golden Age Index, had our employment rates for those aged 55 years and older been as high as those in Sweden between 2003 and 2013, UK national GDP would have been £105bn – or 5.8% – higher.
There are, of course, problems to this approach. Those who can happily work into their 70s and beyond are likely to be the privileged few: the highly educated elite who haven’t spent their working lives in jobs that negatively affect their health. If the state pension age is pushed further away, for those with failing health, family responsibilities or no jobs, life will become very difficult.
The new state pension, introduced on 6 April 2016, will be paid to men born on or after 6 April 1951, and women born on or after 6 April 1953. Assuming you have paid 35 years of National Insurance, it will pay out £155.65 a week. The old scheme (worth a basic sum of £119.30 per week, with more for those who paid into additional state pension schemes such as Serps or S2P) applies to those born before those dates.
Frank Field, Labour MP and chair of the work and pensions select committee, told me that the new figure of just over £8,000 a year is enough to guarantee all pensioners a decent standard of living: an “adequate minimum”, as he put it. Anything above that, he said, should be privately funded, without tax breaks or other government help.
“Once the minimum has been reached, it’s not the job of government to bribe people to save more,” he says. “To provide luxurious pension payments was never the aim of the state pension.”
Whether the new state pension can really be described as a “comfortable minimum” turns out to be a matter of opinion. Dr Ros Altmann, who was brought into government in April 2015 to work on pensions policy, is the UK government’s former older workers’ champion and a governor of the Pensions Policy Institute. When I relayed Field’s comments to her, she was left briefly speechless. Then she managed a “wow”. “Did he really say that? Would he be happy to live on just over £8,000 a year?” she asked, finally.
Tom McPhail, head of retirement policy at financial advisers Hargreaves Lansdown, is clear that the new state pension has not been set at a high-enough level to guarantee a dignified older age to those who have no other income. “How sufficient is the new state pension? That’s an easy one to answer: It’s not,” he said.
Field makes the assumption that people have enough additional private financial ballast to bolster their state pensions. But the reality is that many people have neither savings – nearly a third of all households would struggle to pay an unexpected £500 bill – nor sufficient private pension provision to bring their state pension entitlement up to a level to ensure a comfortable retirement by most people’s understanding of the term. In fact, savings are the great dividing line in retirement, and the scale of the so-called “pension gap” – the gap between what your pension pot will pay out and the amount you need to live comfortably in older age – is shocking.
Three in 10 Britons aged 55-64 do not have any pension savings at all. Almost half of those in their 30s and 40s are not saving adequately or at all. In part, that is because we underestimate the amount of money we need to save. According to research by Saga earlier this month, four in 10 of those aged over 40 have no idea of the cost of even a basic lifestyle in retirement. When it came to understanding the size of the total pension pot they would need to fund retirement, over 80% admitted they had no idea how big this would need to be.
Retirement is an ancient concept. It caused one of the worst military disasters ever faced by the Roman empire when, in AD14, the imperial power increased the retirement age and decreased the pensions of its legionaries, causing mutiny in Pannonia and Germany. The ringleaders were rounded up and disposed of, but the institution remains so highly prized that any threat to its continued existence is liable to cause mutiny. “Retirement has been stolen. You can pay in as much as you like. They will never pay back. Time for a grey revolution,” one reader emailed.
It was in 1881 that the German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, made a radical speech to the Reichstag, calling for government-run financial support for those aged over 70 who were “disabled from work by age and invalidity”.
Roger Hall in Porlock Bay, Somerset. Photograph: Sam Frost for the Guardian
The scheme wasn’t the socialist ideal it is sometimes assumed to be: Bismarck was actually advocating a disability pension, not a retirement pension as we understand it today. Besides, the retirement age he recommended just about aligned with average life expectancy in Germany at that time. Bismarck did, however, have a further vision that was genuinely too radical for his era: he proposed a pension that could be drawn at any age, if the contributor was judged unfit for work. Those drawing it earlier would receive a lower amount.
This notion is surfacing again in various forms. The New Economics Foundation isarguing for a shorter working week, via a “slow retirement”, in which employees give up an hour of work per week every year from the age of 35. The idea is that older workers will release more of their work time to younger ones, which will allow a steady handover of retained wisdom. A universal basic income, whereby everyone receives a set sum from the state each year, regardless of how much they do or don’t work, might have a similar effect, enabling people to move to part-time work as they age.
Widespread poverty among the over-65s led to the 1946 National Insurance Act, which introduced the first contributory, flat-rate pension in the UK for women of 60 and men of 65. At first, pension rates were low and most pensioners did not have enough to get by. But by the late 1970s, the value of the state pension rose and an increasing number of people – mainly men – were able to benefit from occupational pension schemes. By 1967, more than 8 million employees working for private companies were entitled to a final-salary pension, along with 4 million state workers. In 1978, the Labour government introduced a fully fledged “earnings-linked” state top-up system for those without access to a company scheme.
With pension payments now at a rate that enabled older people to stop work without risking penury, older men (and to a lesser extent older women) began to enjoy a “third age”, which fell between the end of work and the start of old age. In 1970, the employment rate for men aged 60-64 was 81%; by 1985 it had fallen to 49.7%.
Access to a comfortable old age is a powerful political idea. John Macnicol, a visiting professor at the London School of Economics and author of Neoliberalising Old Age, believes that when jobs were needed for younger men after the second world war, a “socially elegant mythology” was created in which retirement was a time for older workers to kick back and relax.
He believes that in the 1990s, however, the narrative was cynically changed and the image of pensioners was deliberately altered: from being poor, frail, dependent and deserving, to well off, hedonistic, politically powerful and selfish. The notion of “the prosperous pensioner was constructed in the face of evidence that showed exactly the opposite to be the case”, he said, “so that the right to retirement [could be] undermined: more coercive working practices, forcing older people to stay in employment, could be presented as providing new ‘opportunities’, removing barriers to working, bestowing greater inclusion and even achieving upward social mobility”.
This change in attitude towards pensioners helped the government bring in a hike in retirement age. In 1995, the Conservative government under John Major announced a steady increase from 60 to 65 in the state pension age for women, to come in between April 2010 and April 2020. Most agreed that equalising the state pension age was fair enough. What they objected to is that the government waited until 2009 – a year before the increases were set to begin – to start contacting those affected, leaving thousands of women without time to rearrange their finances or adjust their employment plans to fill the gaping hole in their income.
Then, in 2011 – when the state pension age for women had risen to 63 – the coalition government accelerated the timetable: the state pension age for women will now reach 65 in November 2018, at which point it will rise alongside men’s: to 66 by 2020 and to 67 by 2028.
When she retired from the ministry of work and pensions in 2016, Ros Altmann stated that she was “not convinced the government had adequately addressed the hardship facing women who have had their state pension age increased at short notice”.
After surviving cancer at 52, Jackie Harrison, now 62, looked over her savings and decided she could just about afford to take early retirement. “I had achieved 36 years of national insurance contributions,” she said. “I used to phone the Department for Work and Pensions every year to ensure that I had worked enough to get my full pension at 60.”
Then she was told her personal pension age was increasing from 60 to 63 years and six months. “I wasn’t eligible for any benefits because of my partner’s pension, but I could nevertheless still just about manage until the new state retirement age,” she said. But when she was 58, the goalposts moved again – this time to 66. “I’d been out of the workplace for so long that I didn’t have a hope of being able to get back into it,” she said. “But nor did it give me enough time to make other financial arrangements.”
Harrison made the agonising decision to raise money by selling her family home and moving to a different city, where she could live more cheaply. Her decisions had heavy implications for the rest of her family – and the state. When she moved, she left behind a vulnerable adult daughter and baby grandchild and octogenarian parents.
“This is not the retirement I had planned at all,” Harrison told me. “I had loads of savings once, but now I live in a constant state of worry due to financial pressures. It seems so unfair when I have worked all my life and planned for my retirement. I just don’t know how I am going to manage for another four years”. Women born in the 1950s are already living in their age of no retirement.
In 2006, it became legal for employers to force their workers to retire at the age of 65. A campaign led by Age Concern and Help the Aged was swift and effective in its argument that the new default retirement age law broke EU rules and gave employers too much leeway to justify direct discrimination on the grounds of age. On 1 October 2011, the law was overturned.
Since then, Britain’s workforce has greyed almost before our eyes: in the last 15 years, the number of working people aged 50-64 has increased by 60% to 8 million (far greater than the increase in the population of people over 50). The proportion of people aged 70-74 in employment, meanwhile, has almost doubled in the past 10 years. This trend will continue. By 2020, one-third of the workforce will be over 50.
A worker at Steelite International ceramics in Stoke-on-Trent. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian
The proportional increase may be substantial, but it charts growth from a low level. In empirical terms, the impact is less positive: almost one-third of people in the UK aged 50-64 are not working. In fact, a greater number are becoming jobless than finding employment: almost 40% of employment and support allowance claimants are over 50, an indication that many older people are unable to easily find new and sustainable work.
This is unsustainable: by 2020, an estimated 12.5m jobs will become vacant as a result of older people leaving the workforce. Yet there will only be 7 million younger people to fill them. If we can no longer rely on immigration to fill the gaps, employers will have to shed their prejudices, workplaces will have to be adapted, and social services will have to step in to provide the care that ageing people can no longer give their grandchildren, ageing spouses or parents if they remain in the workforce.
Forcing older people to work longer if they cannot easily do so can cause more harm than good
But forcing older people to work longer if they cannot easily do so can cause more harm than good. Prof Debora Price, director of the Manchester Institute for Collaborative Research on Ageing, told me: “There is evidence to suggest that opportunities for people to work beyond state pension age might well be making inequalities worse, since those able to work into later life tend to be men who are highly educated and have been in higher-paid jobs.”
One answer is to return to Bismarck’s original plan, whereby the state pension can be accessed early by anyone who chooses to collect a smaller pension sum at an age lower than the state retirement age, perhaps because of poor health or other commitments.
This option, however, was rejected last week by John Cridland, the former head of the Confederation of British Industry’s business lobby group, who was appointed by the government in March 2016 to help cut the UK’s £100bn a year pension costs by reviewing the state pension age.
Instead, Cridland has recommended that the state pension age should rise from 67 to 68 by 2039, seven years earlier than currently timetabled. This will push the state retirement age back for a year for anyone in their early 40s. Cridland has rejected calls for early access to the state pension for those in poor health, but has left the door open for additional means-tested support to be made available one year before state pension age for those unable to work owing to ill health or caring responsibilities.
In spite of their anxieties about money, one of the things I have been most struck by, in my many conversations with older readers, is the pleasure they take in life.
One grandmother told me: “Last week, I swept across a crowded pub to pick up a raffle prize … with my dress tucked into my knickers! A few years ago I would have been mortified. Not any more. Told ’em they were lucky it was cold and I had knickers on!”
Monica Hartwell, 69, is part of the team at the volunteer-run Regal theatre in Minehead, as well as the film society and the museum. “The joy of getting older is much greater self-confidence,” she told me. “It’s the loss of angst about what people think of you: the size of your bum or whether others are judging you correctly. It’s not an arrogance, but you know who you are when you’re older and all those roles you played to fit in when you were younger are irrelevant.”
Women in Ilkley, West Yorkshire, discuss retirement. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian
The data bears out these experiences: 65 to 79 is the happiest age group for adults, according to the Office for National Statistics. Recently, a report claimed that women in their 80s have more enjoyable sex than those up to 30 years younger. Other research has found that 75% of those aged 50 and over are less bothered about what people think of them and 61% enjoy life more than when they were younger.
So what is the secret to a successful retirement? Private companies run courses to help those on the verge of retirement plan for changes in income, time and relationships. I have spoken to those running such courses, as well as those who have retired. The consensus is that there are five pillars, all of which rest on the “money bit” – the basic level of financial security without which later life is hard. Once that foundation is in place, retirees can build up the second pillar: a social network to replace their former work community. The third pillar is having purpose and challenging one’s mind. Fourth is ongoing personal development – exploring, questioning and learning are an important part of what makes us human; this should never stop, I was told. The fifth and final pillar is having fun.
I tried explaining final-salary pensions to a 20-year-old recently. They looked at me quizzically, as though I was telling them that I had seen a unicorn. When that same 20-year-old, however, tries to explain the traditional concept of retirement to their own children, they might well be met with the same level of incomprehension.
For their children, life might well be more like the joke that Ali Seamer emailed to me during a recent Q&A I ran with readers as part of my investigation into what retirement means today: “I’m going to have to work up to 6pm on the day of my funeral just to be able to afford the coffin,” he said.
In examining the reality of this new age of no retirement, I have become aware of two pitfalls undermining constructive debate. The first is the prejudice that an ageing population will place a huge burden on society.
This is refuted by numerous studies: the volunteer charity WRVS has done the most work to quantify the economic role played by older generations. Taking together the tax payments, spending power, caring and volunteer efforts of people aged 65-plus, it calculates that they contribute almost £40bn more to the UK economy than they receive in state pensions, welfare and health services.
The research suggests that this benefit to the economy will increase in coming years as increasing numbers of baby-boomers enter retirement. By 2030, it projects that the net contribution of older people will be worth some £75bn.
Older people’s contribution to society is not just economic. An ICM poll for the WRVS study found that 65% of older people say they regularly help out elderly neighbours; they are the most likely of all adult age groups to do so.
The second pitfall is the conflict between generations that can be caused by the issue of retirement. The financial problems of the young have been blamed on baby boomers. But the truth is that the UK pension languishes far below that which is provided in most developed countries. And this contributory, taxed income – pensioners pay tax just like anyone else – is all that many old people have to live on.
Nearly 2 million of those aged 55-64 do not have any private pension savings and despite the commonly held belief that older people are all mortgage-free, fewer than 48% of those aged 55-64 own their own homes outright and nearly a quarter are still renting. It is true that some have benefitted greatly from rises in house prices, but the cost of lending was high – often 10% or more – during the 1970s and 1980s. One in 10 of those aged 65 and over still have a mortgage.
For all the recent talk of the average pensioner household being £20 a week better off than working households, the truth is that many are actually working to supplement their income. Still, to people just entering the workforce, the lives of today’s pensioners look impossibly privileged.
Rachael Ingram sums it up. At 19, working full-time and studying for an Open University degree, she is already putting 10% of her income aside for her pension. “I shouldn’t be worrying about saving for my pension at my age,” she told me. “I’m saving money that could go towards a deposit for my first house – I’m currently renting a flat in Liverpool – or out socialising. But I have no faith in government or the state pension. There will be no one to look after me when I’m old.”