The Third Age is being very poorly led.

Come on down.

We hold these truths to be self-evident.

If you are (say) 66 years of age and living somewhere in the Western world then, in the interests of personal lifestyle success, you should:

• Not make yourself unnecessarily expensive to your current employer or any potential employer
• Accept that a heavy dependency on social security / welfare payments leaves you very vulnerable to income disruption
• Beware all displacement-activity (disguised as purposefulness) : it is nice to volunteer at the local community center but, crudely, it you are income-deficient you should be nailing a job
• Unless you are privately wealthy (in which case stay off this pitch), do not go back to school to have fun or “actualize” yourself : take only those courses (finance management, entrepreneurship, presentation skills, IT, heath & safety…) which (re-)equip you to be successful in the labor market
• Inhabit only the space you need : do not hoard sentimentality about objects or places or garden-views

There is an over-pronounced tendency in the modern discourse on aging, indeed a determination on the part of so many gray campaigners and lobbies to insist that governments, employers, the media, our culture… are all pretty beastly to the sexa-septua-octos in our midst.

In too many voices, agism has become the third big vice – after racism and sexism. At best (in this worldview), older folks get insulted by the language used to describe them; see their experience and wisdom so wastefully cast aside; are left invisible to every profession from architects to fashion designers to advertisers to TV producers.

Now, of course, we should all shout down overt discriminations and abhor casual insensitivities to older people and to any person. And we should recognize and endorse the critical role played by the State in both making policy and providing essential resources to the Third Age.

But let’s not paralyze ourselves into a culture, indeed a cult, of complaint. Nobody is a natural victim just because he/she is old.

But aging does make a difference to life-stuff (physical powers, perceptions of others, relations with other generations…) and so let’s not pretend otherwise.

Stop waiting for the tooth fairy to come over the rainbow

Specifically, Third Agers should not act as if the world owes them a living and wait, while all the fish are jumping, for that living to be easy.

You (the 66 year old) are the demographic change you see in the world. Enriched longevity is, in all its swirling consequences, happening to you. Today. And for maybe 25 more years.

So let’s keep it real rather than romantic.

The modern Western state – whether social-democratic, neo-liberal, whatever – is looking every day for ways to give you less money and dilute your welfare-ist perks. This is generally not because those countries are run by sadists or zealots; it’s because the national taxable capacity is enfeebled by :

a) the aftershocks of 2008, reverberating longer than anyone imagined
b) the hard-set unwillingness of electorates to yield more in direct taxes
c) the untouchability of the profits won by so many of the large, globally mobile corporations of the 21st century
d) the depression in direct tax receipts that will be the most emphatic consequence (and do not let anyone tell you otherwise!) of the assault by robotics on so many middle-class and lower middle-class occupations (and the rewards they have traditionally carried)
e) the reality of low GDP growth in the major economies (coupled to the swelling intellectualization of the belief that growth should not really be anyways pursued – for ecological and social reasons)

Let’s sing it out loud one more time.

Yes, in much of Europe and North America there has never been a Third Age as prosperous, as techno-literate, as well-informed and as healthy as the one now sitting beside us on the bus. But so much of that well-being is precarious since, like Jethro Tull used to sing, life is a long song these days; so it is a good idea to lick the dust from your eye. For the macro-economic conditions surrounding anyone aged 66 today and due to live healthily for another 25 years are not suggesting that household incomes will naturally rise uniformly (to address cost of living issues and other vicissitudes) over that time.

The Third Age sits upon a rocking horse – not likely to be Pegasus anytime soon.

Consider this.

The median income of a retiree American household aged 55-59 is ca $74,000. For a retiree household aged 65-69 the figure is $54,000. For a retiree household aged 75+, the figure bumps down to a mere $32,000.

For most elderly Americans, Social Security is still the biggest source of monthly income. (Source : BLS, Labor Bureau 2019).

As an attractive proposition, early retirement is in cultural decline in the US. Labor force participation for the over-55s now runs at 40%, representing an increase of 10 percentage points in one generation. By 2017, around 20% of citizens over-65 were either still working or searching for a job. No wonder : only 37% of older Americans report that a private pension is a major source of household income. (Source : ACL/AoA 2017/18)

In the UK, only around 10% of the 65+ population are active in the labor market. This represents a doubling of activity since 1998 but this is still unhealthily and unsustainably low. For there are 2.7m more 65+people in the UK than there were in 1998.

Meanwhile, the UK spends more on pension outlays than on any other form of welfare (approximately 50 times what its Treasury spends on support for those looking for work).

As the debate currently stands, the Government sees the age of access to a state pension rising to 68 within 20 years. But let’s (those of us who survive) not wait to wail our disappointment at HMG when this turns, soon enough, into “rising to 72 within 6 months”.

Along the way, the Triple Lock (the UK’s pension calculator – a rather progressive device) will have been melted down and pensioner Brits will have to battle like Boudicca (but without her sophistication of weaponry) to maintain a monthly state payment high enough to finance a bus ride to the discount store (concessionary fares having been long since abolished). Still in the UK, only around one third of annual Third Age income comes from occupational pension schemes. This is too low; it means that dependency on the state is far too heavy.

Oldies! Prove Your Worth!

Nothing in what we say here ignores the following:

• It is a reality that millions of retirees across the Western world have access to a quality of lifestyle, rooted in reasonably robust financial wellbeing, which would have seemed as likely as a magic-carpet ride to their own grandparents.

• Beneath all the means and the medians, there lies a population of older people whose fortunes are so dilapidated that if they were alive today John Steinbeck would be writing novels and Woody Guthrie singing ballads about them.

• It is correct to mount advocacy in favour of high and progressive pension provision – of a kind enjoyed in Denmark and Finland. Only the well-resourced state can be the reliable guardian of last resort.

• Being 66 is different from being 44. Some 25% of, for example, British sexagenarians are informal suppliers of care. The older you are – and oh how we wish people-who-should-know-better would come out from behind the curtain of denial here – the more you are exposed to debilitations as well as what are just new commitments. It can be very hard to keep working – even/often when you would like to do just that.

• Women can, within this whole discussion, find themselves specially disadvantaged. In the US, for example, one third of all women over-65 are widowed and some 16% are divorced. It is hardly un-feminist to accept that such will have been their previous decades that they are generally in a weaker position in the labor market (or any version of wealth-accumulation activity) than men. Around half of those women over-75 live alone. The median income for gray American women is about 60% that of men(op.cit.). This is not a good picture.

However. Whether we like it or not, the demand in the public square that the retiree generation – with all its advantages and indeed disadvantages in place – put in a bigger shift will inevitably be amplified.

This being so, it is utterly wrong to whine at major employers for not being super-sensitive to those who are, after all, a wee bit creaky.

It is wrong to ask for some version of positive discrimination in recruitment practices.

Wrong too to prattle about how innately talented / super-experienced / cruelly overlooked those job-hunting pensioners all are.

The sex-septu and yes the -octos have to compete; keep their day rates low (maybe starting this in their 50s?); accept (like actors) odd jobs while hoping for more suitable ones (ie relating perhaps to previous professional status) to come along. Work as that waitress in a cocktail bar till you get the commission to tutor math.

Yes, the last thirty years have been good to this Third Age. And there should be no guilt on the gingerbread : good for the wrinklies. But the years have not been good enough. And the trade winds are no longer fair.

Let’s not pauperize the older punters by patronizing them. Let’s get them earning, innovating, employing in their own right. Nothing else will help them nearly as much.

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