UK state pension age rises – but what is retirement for?

sky divingThe British government has confirmed that, as expected, it will bring forward the increase in state pension age. The previous planned rise from 65 to 66 for men will now almost certainly come eight years earlier, in 2016, and for women by 2020. Meanwhile, there will be a review of how much further and faster things should move, with suggestions that there will be legislation to allow for automatic age rises every five years. If the state pension isn’t directly linked to life expectancy, it will be something very like it. Britain will almost certainly be looking at holding off pension entitlement to the age of 70 by 2050.

In France, there were strikes and street demonstrations yesterday over plans to raise the state pension age to a mere 62. There, a pension is regarded as a central part of a treasured social contract between state and citizens, in which benefits are an essential part of a civilized society. Here, the resistance to the change has not been general, driven by public sector outrage, but on behalf of the poor. Brendan Barber, the general secretary of the TUC, pointed out that at the age of 65, men in Kensington and Chelsea can look forward to 23 years more of life, while their counterparts in Glasgow can expect only 14.

In that case, we ought to be thinking more about working lives and health inequalities than about retirement. This gross imbalance is conditioned by things that happen earlier in life – by the kind of work people are able to do and the opportunities they have to live healthily. Trying to do something about it (what, though?) at the age of retirement is a matter of stable doors and bolted horses.

Fewer of us do manual jobs that exhaust and degrade us by the time we are in our fifties than was the case half a century ago. The fact that those who do are in a minority doesn’t help them, of course; but we should be aiming for a situation in which everyone has the right to work that is enjoyable, satisfying and meaningful.

And then we have to think about retirement. Iain Duncan Smith’s promised review of pensions needs to start by asking what retirement is for. Originally, it was a means of pensioning off those who were too old and infirm to work. Clearly, in the majority of cases, that is no longer true. So what do we think retirement is? A period of leisure, which is a necessary part of a civilised society? But why have all the leisure at the end? Why not when we’re younger and frazzled by childcare, or in midlife with caring responsibilities?

Retirement for its own sake, in a world in which older people have tremendous capacities and wider opportunities than ever before, is meaningless. If we started thinking about a seamless progression from an earlier part of our lives, rather than a abrupt dramatic shift into ‘leisure’, whatever that means, we might be able to think about it more rationally. Just as importantly, doing so would give us a way of thinking about how to make work more productive and valuable over the whole life course, and reduce the horrible inequalities that are now exposed by vastly differing prospects as we age.retirement sign

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