If the pension pot is empty, we have to let older people work

For a more productive workforce, and happier citizens, it's vital people in "human resources" start to realise that if you're over 50, you're still human


On Saturday, my mother fell down the stairs. She got off the stairlift, put her foot on the second-to-last stair, and slipped. She didn’t call an ambulance, because my mother thinks breaking an ankle so badly that it needs to have plates put in it is no reason to call an ambulance. She called a neighbour, who managed to shuffle round.

She had been planning to go with that neighbour, who’s recently had a stroke, to see Quartet. She won’t see it for a while now. If she had, she would have seen Maggie Smith playing a woman who’s grand, and bossy and tough, the kind of character who’s called “feisty” if she’s a woman, and “strong” if he’s a man. She would have seen her arrive at an old people’s home that seems to be more like a holiday camp. She would have seen her soften, because “feisty” women in films always have to soften, and she would have seen her find love.

 My mother is all for love, but I’m not sure how much she’d like it in a film that seems to think people who are old are funny and quaint. I think she might think that the kind of love you come across when you’re old is more likely to be the kind you see in Amour. I think she’d think that the old man nursing his wife as she gets frailer, as my mother had to do when my father got cancer, gives a better sense of what Bette Davies once said, and a character in Quartet repeats: that “old age is not for sissies”.

It isn’t. It certainly isn’t. Snapping bones when you’re 78 isn’t for sissies, and nor is having stitches in skin that’s already paper thin. Calling for bedpans isn’t, and particularly when you don’t even like your children to see you in your nightie, and know that the bedpan will be brought by a man. Old age isn’t for sissies, but there’s one thing that helps – and that’s not having to worry about your bills.

My mother’s lucky. She has her teacher’s pension, and half my father’s civil service pension, and she still lives in the house where I grew up. My mother can still heat the house, and still run a car, and still buy ready meals from M&S. But most of us won’t be able to. Those of us who didn’t decide to work in the public sector, or marry civil servants, or even anyone, will be living on the tiny pension pots we’ve built up. Which, in my case, is about a grand a year.

We will, in other words, need the state. We’ll need the state to pay pensions we can live on, but we’ll also need the state to get its sums right. Until recently, it hasn’t. Until recently, the state has pretended that you can keep on paying the same level of pension however many old people you get. The trouble is, you can’t. It would be nice if you could, but you can’t. If you don’t produce enough younger workers to pay for the old people’s pensions, you can’t keep paying pensions at the same rate.

This government has realised this, which is why it has asked a man who knows a lot about pensions to suggest some changes. And he has. Steve Webb, the pensions minister, has. He has suggested that most people should get a flat rate of £144 a week. Some people will be better off, and some people will be worse off, but one thing is clear. We’re all going to have to work longer for less.

That’s fine. The world is changing, and there’s no reason why people who are fitter, and who live longer, shouldn’t work longer than people did before. When the pension was introduced, less than half the population lived till 65. Now a third of all babies will live to be 100. Work’s good for us. People who work are likely to be healthier than people who don’t. Working longer is good for the economy, good for the pension pot, and good for the people who work. But to work, you need a job.

That sounds easy, but it isn’t. Nearly half of all the people over 50 who are unemployed have, according to Age UK, been out of work for more than a year. Forty per cent of employees over 50 say they have been discriminated against because of their age. Research by the think-tank Policy Exchange showed that younger people applying for work got twice as many positive responses as people over 50 did. Work, in other words, is nice if you can get it, but if you’re over 50 you probably can’t.

This has got to change. People who write columns always say things have got to change, but they have. They really have. We can’t have a country full of old people – or even people who are 50, which you couldn’t really call old – who have to work, but can’t. We have laws against age discrimination, but these laws are broken every day. We don’t need new laws. What we need, which is what we needed in the days when women weren’t allowed to have certain jobs, is a change in culture.

What we need is for employers to realise, just as Sainsbury’s, and British Gas, and BT, and Nationwide, have realised, that there are very good reasons to have employees of all ages. We need them to realise that older employees are often more reliable, and more punctual, and politer to customers, than younger employees, and that they’re also more likely to stay in a job. We need them to realise that people of all ages like being dealt with by people of all ages, and that workplaces need both the energy of youth, and the wisdom of age.

We need people in “human resources” to realise that you’re still “human” when you’re over 50, and to be trained in how to recruit and train employees who are older than them. And we need incentives. We need employers to be rewarded when they take on an older worker, or apprentice, in the same way that they’re meant to be rewarded when they take on a younger one now.

This isn’t about putting youth against age. Young people need extra help at the moment, and old people do, too. This is about the people in the middle. It’s about the politicians who say you shouldn’t discriminate against older people, and then give all the big jobs to people who are the same age as them. It’s about the people in the media who think that the only way to get a bigger audience is with a young face.

When my mother retired, she retrained as a teacher of English as a foreign language. When my father retired, he did work for the Citizens Advice Bureau. I’m sure my mother’s students, and my father’s clients, benefited from many of the things they had, after 40-odd-years in the workplace, learnt. I hope we can all benefit from what people who’ve lived longer than us have learnt. But if we don’t make some very big changes, we won’t.

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