It was in August 2019 that the UK’s Centre for Social Justice produced its study Ageing Confidently : supporting an ageing workforce. The innocuous title gave no hint of the foolishness within. But the CSJ conclusions nevertheless attracted loud applause across media and one can be confident that, throughout the emphatically un-roaring Twenties with which we are all to be engaged, more reports of this colour and purpose will arrive.
The effect will be to pin under continuous fire all those lobbying for generous benefits for the grey in our midst. The CSJ recommendation that the state pension threshold should rise to 75 within ca 15 years may sound outrageous to those lobbies now; very soon it will be banalised as it echoes round think tank town and policy wonkerville like cheap hip-hop.
The CSJ attitude to state pension provision is an orthodoxy in the making. Wake up and smell the coffin.
Now we interrupt this broadcast to agree that the business of giving every sexagenarian a regular taxpayer-funded allowance for the rest of his/her life is a very vexed affair, universally vexed in fact. The French Government, for instance, struggles (as we write) to achieve its goal of raising the state pension age to 64 – such is the outcry on the streets and among opposition parties. La France insoumise agitates that as healthy life expectancy is in decline (sic) in France this is no time to overwork the already overworked. Even Vladimir Putin has had to roll back similar reforms in Russia – reforms such as raising the female retirement age to 63 – in the wake of public horror. After a long and anguished debate in Sweden, the old flat rate pension scheme has been abandoned and please-keep-working incentives have been established (not surprisingly since there is now an automated limit to national pension spend per annum).
In the UK and elsewhere in the Western world, there is palpable pressure either to raise the age of eligibility for or to reduce the monetary value of the state pension – or both. The driving agents of this attitude might be summarised thus:
• An appreciation that the average democracy simply cannot raise the funds to increase pension payments for the swelling population of the Third Age.
• A sense that it would be unfair even to try to do this – since other social tribes and segments are already disadvantaged by the preponderance of financial support for older people now structural – so it will be alleged – in a benefits system that is to the needs of the 21st century what high-street video rental stores are to the needs of contemporary boxset-hungry TV viewers.
Now, there can be no doubt that pension provision is terribly and indeed dangerously expensive. Nearly 13 million British people now access this form of state support – a national payment burden of £97 billion pa (and this not the only provision those of pension age can enjoy). Indeed some 55% of all social security spend is programmed for those aged 65+. (Source : gov.uk) There is a rising clamour that this is far too advantageous as the recent (2019) House of Lords report – with its tell-tale title Tackling Intergenerational Unfairness – reaffirmed.
This leads us to the Centre for Social Justice and Ageing Confidently. What is wrong with it?
• There are pro-grey lobbies in the UK (and indeed beyond) who would not be satisfied even if every pensioner couple in the land woke up tomorrow morning to find two Daimlers in their driveway and a Fortnum & Mason hamper in each boot – all unpromptedly provided by HMG along with an embossed card from the PM saying Enjoy! For their very corporate existence depends on an image of old age as something solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and long – as well on a public policy that can be easily and persistently trashed as inadequate because it does not ever, ever go far enough. No half-decent trends agency would ever trawl lobbies or campaigns or charities in search of source material or dispassionate inquiry. It is vital in this debate to stick to official and/or proprietary (ie specially commissioned) studies but not borrowings; AC thus flatters rather than critiques. And, oh, that laziest of prefixes : “Evidence suggests….”!
• The recommendation that the age of state pension eligibility should rise to 75 is flung onto the table without any corroborative thrust at all. It reads like an afterthought, a punch to provoke publicity. All that CSJ really seems to be saying is that, well, we are all living longer and the public accounts are under pressure – so, er, let’s jack the pension age up to, er, 75. But look – we are talking about people’s lives here. Delivering successful ageing for the next couple of decades is not a disposable seminar, a whimsy brainstorm for the clever folk. A crisis needs serious people – and a crisis would certainly flow into millions of households if all those who are approaching 50 today have willy-nilly to work for another 25 years before they are able to access a state pension (which must, on current trends, dwindle in buying power).
• One has to offer a vision about the scale and the direction of the disruptiveness that will – that is bound to – characterise the next 20 years. It is no good tacitly proceeding on the basis that GDP growth will still be compounding its way forward in the same old groove; that the labour market will still be engaging the majority of adults in the same old lucrative careers and annually renewed contracts; that the social-democratic state will still be able to address the human-welfare agenda with more or less the same resources it has to hand today…. Such assumptions might well be right but they need – glaringly absent here – quite a big bit of intellectual truss to keep upright. We are here to declare that it is simply unimaginable that earning power in the UK will not be transformed and possibly wounded by the play of robotics/AI (Rinkli Funstaz does not care what Jack Ma says); globalisation and geo-political tax optimization; the swell of ecological sensitivity inside consumer markets; academic and perhaps ultimately political disaffection with the very notion of economic growth….. But there is not a whiff of any of this here. Not even a nod of a preamble, not a bruise of context on a grimly linear turn of thought. Ageing confidently + supporting an ageing workforce = calling tomorrow as it is likely to be. Tough. But try!
• Now, CSJ will argue that its advice that the state should raise the SPA to 75 by 2015 (having raised it along the way to 70 by 2028 – aka next week) is dependent on public policy delivering a lot of ancillary services and programmes in the meantime. The talk is of “employee tailored holistic Mid-Life MOTs” to be provided by employers along with encouragement to those same employers to “publicise flexible working options” and to “model inclusive recruitment”. This is the intellectual equivalent of consuming two forecourt custard doughnuts rather than cooking your own grilled salmon-and kale supper. Such recommendations signal that the authors are just tick-boxing the wheezes into play and not really getting down on their issue. Only 10% of British over-65s are in paid employment; this is far too low and must be at least double across the next decade. But along the way millions will just not find their way back to the embrace of big-firm employers with progressive HR departments who are capable of adjusting to the ever-modernising definitions of diversity and inclusiveness. It’s so not just about policy and regulation.
And so, to keep things brief what should the CSJ have said? What should any one of us say? What follows are what we might call elements of a new social concordat, an appeal for radicalism infused with urgency.
In no particular order:
• The future of our labour markets should be viewed from two interactive angles : the survivalist perspective of employers, current and potential, AND the economy’s absolute requirement for age-unspecific entrepreneurialism. The grey campaigns should dial down their complaints about age discrimination and tell their sexagenarian supporters to cut their fee requirements to lever themselves into jobs. There should be a national campaign to ensure that every single adult in the land has keyboard skills and home access to the net : for all to have prizes, all must have tools, all must respect upskilling imperatives. No exceptions.
• All concerned should accept some unavoidable truths about life and ageing : the grey job-hunter may be able to offer, say, but five years of full commitment to a firm. If you are a wannabe novelist aged 22 then a potential publisher knows that if your first story sells well then the possibility opens that you could be selling books for the next 50 years. If you offer your first novel to an agent at the age of 72 – well, it’s not going to have the same commercial vibration, is it? This is a perfectly pertinent metaphor for how all labour markets behave. Our business is not to complain about this but to adjust to it.
• Specifically, the language surrounding the practice of volunteering has to change. Of course, there are many nice grey people, perhaps comfortably off, who make it their routine to raise funds for good causes, to alleviate the loneliness of isolated individuals, to sort food parcels for the pauperised. Much human value springs from this motive. But we should all start telling those who are financially needy but able to work that volunteering is not for them!
• The threat of a horrendous personal/family cost for social care provision – a theme barely mentioned by the CSJ – has corrupted the ageing process in the UK. It is wrong for anyone in their fifties to depend upon the ultimate generosity of the state. There are families alive today who will soon enough see their savings devastated by the prices charged for social care – whatever the sum of personal asset wealth which HMG (of whatever hue) ultimately (if ever) promises to inoculate. It is wise not to expect too much from public provision and build – if necessary, one gig at a time – as much money as possible, working for cash as long and perhaps even as intermittently as you can.
• It is right that pensioners should not pay NIC on their pension. There is indeed a case for raising the tax-free allowance for those who continue to earn a salary or who run their own business into their seventies. More, though a full argument in favour of the following is beyond the stretch of this paper, there is also most certainly a case for a national policy shift from the minimum-wage model to the wages-council model (with pivotal seasonal and regional variations thus built into prescribed pay levels); this would ease more people into work. Finally, all work is to be respected; if a lady retires after 30 years of school-teaching and takes a job stacking in a supermarket then that lady should be treated as a heroine. Only the unnecessarily idle should be stigmatized. Awards (OBE, MBE, etc…) should be given to individuals when they, for instance, complete 50 years of paying income tax.
• All age lobbies should campaign for certain specific developments / outcomes – and reconsider their clichés and conventional repetitions. The State needs more money and the economy needs to grow. If it is wrong, economically and morally, for the State to strip back its obligations then the State has to be buttressed with continual increases in tax raised. Too many will be nudged into poverty or at least extreme financial precariousness if the state pension eligibility is pushed too far forward. Pensioner poverty has been much compressed since 1997 but 1.8 million are still living with low and fragile living standards (Source : HoC Briefing Paper Sept. 2019). Broadly, the benefits that can be enjoyed by those of pension age should remain available and the principles of the Triple Lock should rest in force. This means the UK has truly to continue as a high tax economy : something a damn sight more valuable to older people than “employee tailored Mid-Life MOTs” or faster stairlifts or the whole world of whining about bovine companies which just do not realise how useful grey-haired “experience” and “wisdom” are to corporate survival in the 21st century. The 70 year old just cannot start life-and-career over and over again like a 20 year old can. The Third Age cannot tolerate too many financial setbacks and so we cannot put the state pension out of the reach of so many.
The fear has to be that the CJS has a lazy metropolitan momentum on its side.
It should not be kicked into the long grass. It should be shot into orbit, towards a galaxy far, far away.