Leading Article: It is no longer good enough just to be nice to old people

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The Independent Culture
KING WILLIAM V is going to have his work cut out. By the time he gets to the throne - an Ikea armchair, no doubt - there will be so many people celebrating their 100th birthdays that he will have to spend all day and all night writing personal messages of congratulation (computerised facsimiles of the royal signature, as introduced by the Queen this week, will no longer fool anybody into thinking they have received the monarch's personal attention).

The latest forecast from the Office of National Statistics suggests that hitting a century will become commonplace. So what are we to do when we reach retirement age and realise that we still have two score years to go? It is time for a revolution in our national attitudes and institutions in respect of old age. Many marketing surveys have noticed the rise of grey power, yet our attitudes to retirement are stuck in the Beveridge era, which itself looked back to Lloyd George's Old Age Pensions Act of 1908.

It is all very well saying that society must recognise the contribution that old people can make - one of the easy platitudes of the well-intentioned - but this means facing up to some awkward decisions. The most obvious contribution that old people can make is by continuing to work. Most people do not want to do so full time, but the tax, benefits and pensions systems hardly encourage part-time working, even if employers' attitudes to older workers could be changed. And employers' attitudes are not likely to change as fast as they might as long as the Government refuses to legislate against age discrimination.

Many changes in the labour market, however, are breaking down age barriers regardless. One unexpected feature of the growth of the Internet has been the extent to which it is used by older people, and if e-commerce is going to be a significant engine of economic growth, then old people can compete on an equal footing.

Changes in the structure of pensions, too, are increasingly allowing flexibility, so that people can take low pensions earlier or high pensions later. The idea of working full time until 60 or 65 and bunking off to do a bit of gardening and long-postponed travel is giving way to a blurring of the divide. We should go further. The concept of retirement should be replaced with the idea of taking sabbaticals at various times over a life of flexible working.

However, there are the costs of ageing to bear as well, and the Government has tried to strike a balance between the individual and the collective in paying for long-term care. But as the old become richer and are more likely to be working, the question of their favourable income-tax treatment is bound to be raised. It is time to move on from wishy-washy "be nice to old people" sentiment and begin tackling the rights and responsibilities of all citizens, regardless of age.