“Retirement age depends on social class”

in conversation with John Macnicol

Finally! (Issue I/2020)

Mr Macnicol, is people’s attitude to age nowadays different from what it was 20 or 50 years ago?

I don’t really think that a great deal has changed in terms of older people, and certainly not here in Britain. We have a very ambivalent relationship with our own ageing process as well as seeing old people as a societal problem. The theme of ageing shifts between these two poles. On one side we’re pleased that more and more people are living longer lives and, on the other, concern is growing about the social costs associated with this.

How does this affect older people?

Over the last 30 to 40 years, pensioners have received little attention. Margaret Thatcher’s government notoriously broke the connection between state pensions with inflation and wages. That led to increasingly serious problems for retirees over the years, so that by the end of the 1990s they were losing around £1,000 a year. Fortunately, later governments have been trying to ameliorate this situation. At the moment, pensioners are the focus of social policy. Pensions are slowly going up, and older generations are also profiting from rising property prices. Retired people have been able to buy houses comparatively easily, and that’s why there are discussions now about whether they enjoy advantages as a demographic. I disagree, though I acknowledge that this viewpoint arouses a lot of debate.

Are resources shared fairly between old and young?

That’s a crucial point and a really hard one to answer. First of all, economic circumstances within sections of the population are very diverse. Second, the question arises as to whether a particular generation can be held responsible for these circumstances. Older people in Britain today haven’t wanted to keep property prices low for their own benefit, but of course they’ve profited from this. Getting on the property ladder is a distinct advantage and younger people find themselves in a much more difficult situation. I don’t think that one generation can be held responsible for something like this at all. But political decision-makers need to keep an eye on the gulf between old and young.

What does the rising retirement age mean for the older generation?

The age at which you can retire has increased and has been very controversial, especially for women. Up until recently, the legal retirement age was still 60 for women and 65 for men, but the retirement age for women went up very quickly. The justification for this step was greater life expectancy, but I question whether that was the real reason. I think it was much actually much more to do with capping government expenditure. Old age pensions are very cost-intensive and will become ever more expensive for states in the future. Raising the retirement age is therefore a pre-emptive strike. Compared to other industrialised nations around the world, Britain has one of the worst pensions systems. That’s why our pensions are so low.

Awareness that older people are often discriminated against, especially in the job market, has increased.

People now work longer hours because jobs are available to them. There’s a lot more part-time work and those are the kinds of occupation that older people are involved in. It’s a gradual reversal of the situation in the early ’90s, when people were tackling this decline in the numbers of older people who were working. If this trend had continued, it would’ve resulted in a really difficult social situation, because then 50-year-olds would’ve had to take early retirement. The increase in employment numbers pre-empted that. A major share of that was of course made up of part-time work that has to be underpinned by a state-run, old-age insurance system.

Does the trend for working longer hours apply to everyone indiscriminately?

The neoliberalising of old age is based on the attempt to level out age differentiation and to enable people to work for as long as possible. I think that’s against older people’s real interests. Societies like the ones we live in ought to support retirement. To what extent this trend will continue remains to be seen. If anything, it’s as much about maximising labour as it’s about making people prosperous. Of course, it’s great for psychological health to still be working after your 65th birthday. A businessperson can carry on working quite happily. There’s no specific retirement age for academics in America, so there are many over there in their 70s leading really interesting lives without any great stress. But someone working in a factory or a manual labourer are often at 50 hardly able to carry on working. So it’s hard to come up with a limit that’s right for everyone. The best option would’ve been to set different retirement ages for different people, but that’s really hard to put in place and implement politically. Most people probably reckon that you have to work only for as long as you’re able to. The reality is that retirement has a lot to do with class. People from lower classes retire earliest. For every generation, being retired is a challenge on a personal level. Some it suits, others not so much.

The papers are full of stories of older people who sail round the world, run marathons or publish novels. It’s been said of writers like Margaret Atwood, with her most recent book “The Testaments” written when she was in her 70s, that she has reached the high point of her career. In your view, are there nowadays more positive examples for older people than there were before?

Getting old is really hard to plan for. Some stay fit and healthy for years, others get sick at 60.

The development is promising, especially when compared to 50 or 80 years ago, when going into retirement was seen as akin to entering a prison. Alongside every amazing 90-year-old marathon runner are the hosts of people who’ve been floored by illness at an early age or who’ve died. That’s the difficulty for policymakers: ageing is unpredictable and just really hard to plan ahead for. It can look very different – some stay fit and healthy for years, others get sick at 60.

As our societies age, the influence of older voters increases. Does this affect the political landscape?

Because of “the grey vote”, the government in Britain is quite concerned about what’s good for retirees. Old people at the moment have a pretty powerful political clout. Because the number of 65-year-olds is going up slightly, this trend is only going to continue.

The interview was conducted by Jess Smee

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