Love your job? The new retirement age is still scary
If I were granted one wish for old age, it would be to avoid the horror that is early retirement. Please God, anything but that. Anything but waking up in the morning with no particularly urgent place to go, and no particularly obvious thing to be. Channel 4’s new series How to Retire at 40 – which largely seems to involve two decades of fanatical self-denial, all in the name of spending the next decades worrying about running out of the money saved – looks to me like the worst sort of dream.
What are these people going to do for the next 40 years? Won’t couples simply run out of things to say to each other when they’re spending two-thirds of their marriage under each other’s feet day and night? For every one in retirement smelling the roses there is surely another grieving for the loss of an identity and a purpose, sinking into depression as the walls close in. Barring dementia, or getting too arthritic to use a keyboard, all I want is to die typing.
But you can’t bar those things. And that’s why the government’s decision to raise the state pension age to 68 (phased in from 2037 onwards rather than from 2044) is frankly scary even for the lucky few in adored jobs that can be done sitting down, let alone for those who hate their jobs, are frankly knackered or dying to stop. It fuels the fear that something will make us give up work before we can afford to do so. No wonder the announcement was slipped out while the nation was busy arguing about whether the BBC’s Huw Edwards should be paid more to read the news than Laura Kuenssberg gets to find it out in the first place.
The blithe assumption that everyone will be able to work for as long as the national finances require – that nobody will get ill, that it’s as easy for someone made redundant at 62 to find another job as it is for someone half that age, that technological change won’t sweep away entire careers from under our feet – simply isn’t borne out by the facts.
Look at the so-called Waspi (Women Against State Pension Inequality) cohort, that generation born in the 1950s and 1960s who didn’t realise until too late that George Osborne had accelerated plans to equalise male and female retirement ages, and so they’d have to wait longer for their state pension.
As Nick Macpherson, the former Treasury permanent secretary, tweeted when this latest decision was announced, raising retirement age invariably “discriminates against poor and manual workers” because they’re statistically more likely to fall sick or become physically unable to do gruelling labour before they actually reach state pension age.
Waspis who had stopped working early – because of illness, redundancy, caring responsibilities or any of the curveballs life tends to throw in your 50s – but assumed their savings would last until they reached the finish line were worst hit when it emerged the finish line had moved. Now they’re scrabbling around for jobs but discovering that employers haven’t got the memo about 60 being the new 40.
Older women say they’re often met with ill-concealed surprise when job hunting. Why isn’t someone like them retired by now? Can they really need this job as much as a younger person with a mortgage? The unspoken assumption, just as it was when these women were young, is that they must be working for pin money or pleasure when they’re actually putting food on the table. They have dropped through a crack between what politicians said would happen – a clampdown on ageism in the workplace, employers being encouraged to value their experience – and reality.
Even if there are fairer ways of doing so, however, it’s clear the Treasury is targeting retirement costs for good reason. The bill for both basic state pension and public sector pensions is rocketing as baby boomers age; and while that’s hardly their fault, those over-60s who voted leave last summer arguably do have something to answer for. Lower immigration in an ageing country means fewer young taxpayers to pick up a growing retirement tab, as the former Confederation of British Industry director-general John Cridland explicitly pointed out in his government-ordered review of retirement, which led to this week’s announcement.
Voters should know, Cridland warned, “that the big cuts in immigration that some politicians are promising them will have serious consequences for their taxes, their services, and their retirements”. Brexit truly is the gift that keeps on giving down the generations.
At least those 30- and 40-somethings affected by the new shift in pension age have more time to plan than the Waspis did. But plan what, exactly? How do you plan not to get ill, fired or be rendered obsolete by a corporate culture that thrives on new blood?
When negotiating the Strictly Come Dancing deal that helps make her the BBC’s best-paid woman, Claudia Winkleman surely considered the strong probability that, unlike Bruce Forsyth, she won’t still be fronting that show when she’s 86 and in need of a sturdy flat shoe. What makes the BBC’s gender pay gap even more jarring is that, like professional athletes, women making a living on screen have an unusually short window in which to maximise earnings. And while TV presenting is an extreme example of ageism, it’s not the only career where youth counts for more than it should.
Two decades ago, my generation of female reporters would look nervously around newsrooms, noting the weird absence of mothers. It was an ominous indicator of what often happened to female journalists when they had children and no longer wanted to be in the office until midnight, or to keep a toothbrush and spare knickers in the car at all times in case they were dispatched on a story at zero notice.
But now the mystery in many newsrooms would be where all the 60-plus reporters have gone. Jobs that used to see you through to retirement age will increasingly fail to do so when everyone’s working until they’re 70 – which is the realistic expectation, if politically harder to sell than 68 – so we’re going to have to get used to seeing our working lives fall into several distinct phases, each involving planning for the next, and retraining as we go.
To anyone who doesn’t have time to plan what they’re having for supper, let alone what they’ll be doing in 2027, it may sound exhausting. But it’s still probably less painful than the alternative. Early retirement? Be careful what you wish for.