Saturday, August 01, 2009

Ageing gracelessly

Norm thinks that "Retirement ought to be a choice rather than an obligation". OK, I will go with that, with the key word being "choice", especially seeing it is something that I have just chosen, from the age of 57, trading income for time. However, he then links to this article (by an economist to an investment bank) to argue that there is an economic case for being allowed to work on past retirement age.

Read carefully and I think that you will see that the subtext is not that you may be allowed to retire when you want, but that you will not be allowed to retire until much later. It's, 'back to work you idle septuagenarians, there are chimneys to be swept and it is your fault for not having enough children to send up them when you still could'. And these words chilled me.
The challenge is to think holistically about how we can raise the participation rate and productivity of people at work in general, and of women and persons aged over 55 in particular.
Just as I throw off the managerial chains and cry, 'free at last', I glimpse a malign argument that would draft me into the front line of garden tool sales at B&Q. It goes like this. People are living longer, the birthrate has fallen, pensions are becoming unaffordable (other than for failed investment bankers who need to be paid a fortune not to run banks), and people will have to accept that they will have to work a lot longer (especially those damn Europeans with their 'sclerotic' social model).

There are two false arguments lurking here. The first is that longevity is a problem rather than a huge triumph. Low life expectancy is the sign of political and economic catastrophe. A long life is the result of prosperity, so if we are more prosperous why can't we afford to offer a comfortable retirement? Why can people only live off present work rather than the results of their past labours?

Secondly, there is the idea that the only economically productive activity is paid employment. Just look at what people do in retirement (if they have the income). They participate, local government would fall apart without the retired, they join clubs and societies, run small businesses, write books, take part time jobs, do voluntary work here and overseas, make things, mend things, plant gardens and allotments, attend (and teach) adult education classes, whilst some even blog. Many wonder how they ever found the time to fit employment in. They are consumers and producers, not some horrible, wrinkly parasites.

However, that is not the fate of all. I am one of the lucky ones. For some, working beyond retirement age is not a matter of lifestyle choice, a desire to continue with a job they enjoy or a way to stave off boredom, it is a bitter necessity because they are poor. It is enforced and exploitative. Their retirement means that trips to the library are simply way of keeping warm rather than of fulfilling dreams. Life in a damp home, unable to pay the bills, and in increasingly poor health is the fate of millions.

What we are really talking about is the language of political priorities, not economic necessity, and of how we distribute wealth. It is back to that word 'choice' again. Do we choose to fund pensions, devote a larger proportion of national wealth to sustain older people in retirement, to maintain company pension schemes? Or do we bow to the gods of lower taxes and higher profits? The advocates of longer working lives are not posing this as a benefit for people who wish to continue working, but as an alternative to redistributive and egalitarian pensions policies.

The dream of technology and growing prosperity was that it would liberate (yes, liberate) us from employment and open up leisure time for creative work, lifelong learning and simple pleasures. Where has that vision gone? Isn't it time we should rethink working life as a whole. How about sabbaticals and paid educational leave? After all, sometimes retirement is wasted on the old. Instead we are fed apocalyptic gloom about a world populated by useless wrinklies, generating "financial stress for individuals and the state, rising pensioner poverty, social dislocations and the possibility of intergenerational conflict".

Rather than a lifetime locked into servile and alienated employment with little dream of freedom beyond, can't we just enjoy ourselves instead? That is the choice I would make.


David Crookes said...

"Why can people only live off present work rather than the results of their past labours?"

Because that's how the state pension scheme works. The past labours paid for past parents, not for present retirees.

And there's a problem. Approaching retirees didn't do enough child producing. The dependency ratio is in for a dramatic change. Something has to give. Perhaps it'll be workers disposable incomes, but perhaps they might feel disincentivised. Or perhaps the old will have to live longer on smaller (than expected) pensions.

Anton Deque said...

I want a well paid job telling other people what to do. One day a week, no weekends.