Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Rethinking Retirement

George Osborne's speech to the Tory conference seems to have impressed the Guardian rather more than some people on the right of politics - a sure sign that for all its talk of radical change and painful cuts the Conservative leadership is as much wedded to centrism as it was in the early Cameron days when he was promising to "share the proceeds of growth". This shouldn't be surprising. They need to get elected, after all, and under our system that means appealing to a small group of key voters in marginals, the middle of the middle of the middle.

Nevertheless Osborne probably could have gone further. The public seems to be up for the idea (if not the reality) of cuts, and it would be a pretty poor sort of Conservative who wasn't able to turn that to his political advantage. Nick Robinson thinks it "a massive electoral gamble" for the Tories to spell out their plans in such detail (shades of John Smith in 1992) and this is the consistent BBC line, but no-one else seems to be taking it. It's striking that both Labour and the LibDems have responded to the announcements by accusing Osborne of not cutting enough.

The most eye-catching of Osborne's ideas was an early increase in the state retirement age. As Robinson noted on the radio this morning, this has its dangers - partly because so many voters will be affected by it, but mainly because Labour are bound to scaremonger and tell lies about it. They've pulled this stunt before. At the time of the 1997 election, the already doomed Conservatives chose to make a long-term review of the pensions system the central plank of their manifesto. If they had been able to implement it there might not be such a monumental pensions crisis facing the country today. In the event all the proposal achieved was to enable Labour to tell pensioners the Tories wanted to take their money away.

I doubt Labour will find such muckspreading an effective strategy this time around. For one thing, many people approaching retirement age will positively welcome the opportunity to work a year longer. The larger question, unaddressed by all parties, is whether the concept of retirement, as it developed in the West in the course of the 20th century, is economically sustainable at all.

Twenty or thirty years of semi-enforced inactivity may seem to some a blissful prospect, but the reality is often a slow and unnecessary decline into irrelevance. Retirement represents not just an economic burden on society but a massive waste of talent, skill and experience as tragic in its way as long-term unemployment (which, to be frank, is what it is). The retired have become a leisured class, funded in part by their own savings but in the main by the labour of others - including others who live in countries where retirement scarcely exists. But unlike most leisured classes throughout history, the majority of retired people are not rich and, after a few years, find themselves scraping by in reduced circumstances, disrespected by the young and eventually forced to sell their homes to afford nursing care. And it cannot be a coincidence that the recently retired have a high divorce rate.

The retired are both over-privileged and disgracefully marginalised, a paradox easily explained by the fact that they are, for the most part, not usefully employed. This is, historically, a very odd state of affairs. Once, only the infirm were considered past work: those who remained active in mind and body continued to work. The principle applied to the upper classes as much as to the poor. Gladstone's octogenarian premiership was unusual but not, by the standards of his time, freakish. Professors, bishops and judges were all expected to live out their days and die in office. Lower down the social scale, small businessmen only handed over to a successor with the greatest reluctance. To retire was to admit defeat.

Today only the Queen and the Pope, and the occasional writer or classical conductor, expect carry on working until they drop dead. Everyone else is put out to grass - often years before state retirement age. With an aging, and healthily aging, population, this is absurd. Now that some demographers expect average life expectancy to near 100, we need to address the whole notion of "a retirement age", indeed of retirement at all. Why, for example, should one's retirement years be taken in a block at the end of working life? It might be more profitable, to the individual and to society, to fit gap years into the framework of a longer working life. This would enable people to recharge their batteries, learn new skills, experience the world and spend time with their families - and, break over, they would become more effective workers. Later in life, older workers would retain their skills and, in many cases, their intellectual faculties, for longer; and they would retain their relevance in society. Presence of over-seventies in the workplace would also improve the relationship between old and young. And it would make end-of-life care, when the time came, easier for society to afford.

Premature retirement is more than just a problem for government; it is ingrained in the whole structure of society. Companies expect to lay off their older workers, while the workers have been conditioned to look forward to their redundancy. The result is the "demographic timebomb", a change in the shape of society that will cause the whole system to collapse under its own weight by the middle of the century. But only because the system is an absurd and unnatural one. It's not an aging society we should fear, merely a retired one.