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Changing pension age is missing the point

I am reminded of a discussion I had recently about future welfare costs and why something had to be done now to 'prevent it spiralling out of control'. One lady in the group repeated something we regularly hear from politicians of all parties.

"We are all living longer!" She said. As if this itself was a problem.
We were in the middle of a discussion about pensions and raising the age of retirement.
"No, we are not!" I replied.
"Yes, we are, on average!" She persisted. Oh dear, I thought, here is that 'average person' again.
"Yes, but I don't live 'on average'" I responded. I've yet to recognise an 'average person' at, say, a bus stop or waiting for a train. I have no idea whether I have sat next to one, ever, in a plane.

There is something absurd about the general panic that seems to be settling in. The fear that the welfare budget is about to be overwhelmed by pensioners. The working population is getting smaller as those in retirement gets bigger with images of vast numbers of aged dependants crushing the rest. An ever-growing burden; more care homes; more carers, hospitals with little old ladies on trollies in corridors in an NHS bulging at the seams. The incontinence of it all! Demented grandparents looking for shops that once lined the high street all unable to cope with the burdens of modern life. There is even a phrase invented for it: 'old-age dependency ratio'.

The problem is that there isn't a problem; or at least not the problem in the public imagination. We are not all about to become modern-day Noahs and live for hundreds of years. Far from it. I suspect that with the growing ravages of increasing poverty, it is more likely 'we', many of us in the future, will have shortened life expectancies rather than increased longevity. The 'average' of the population doesn't take account of differences in socioeconomic status. As the life expectancy of some might be increasing, for others there is little change or it might begin to fall. We have yet to see the long-term effects of obesity and obesity-related diseases. We have yet to witness the outcome from growing poverty.

On average (oops now I'm doing it!) a man retiring in 1981 had a life expectancy of  14 years; in 2011 that has increased to a little over 20. For women, those retiring in 1981 would have a life expectancy on average of 22 years. Now that has increased to 28. But it isn't projected to go on increasing at the same rate. And the more important question is health rather than simply longevity. A healthy population is less likely to increase the 'burden' on health and care services.

The problem of health is unlikely to be solved by simply increasing the state pension age. It can only be tackled by addressing those issues that relate to the health of the population. And it is still the case that the cycle of poverty and ill-health matters more. Breaking that cycle is a better strategy than worrying about increased life on retirement. Furthermore, a healthy population is more likely than not to go on working, to be able to go on working, beyond the statutory retirement age; and healthy people are more likely than not to want to go on working.

Increasing the statutory pension age is mere tinkering. If we are really concerned about the future 'burden', then it is better to tackle health, housing and diet and fitness now. It is better to tackle poverty. This is why cut-throat austerity is so foolish and blind to its consequences.


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