Retirement? It's a shocking waste of a life

We should follow the example of our ancestors

Related Topics

It may seem bizarre to say so, but in some respects, medieval society was rather more civilised than our own. They hated waste in those days; objects were patched up or redeployed, very little was thrown away. And the same applied to people. Virtually no one, however aged or infirm, was without some role. Everyone contributed.

This attitude is part of a world we have lost, as was made plain by last week's House of Lords report on Britain's ageing population. The number of people aged over 65 is set to rise by 50 per cent, from 10.3 million in 2010 to about 15 million in 2030; five years after that, one in four of us will be over 65, and babies born last year can expect to live to their mid-90s.

To many, especially in politics, these figures constitute "A Problem" – older people as a burden as we wrestle with the cost of state pensions and healthcare for all these oldies. The Lords report wisely looks beyond this anxiety, arguing the need for changes in attitudes –more flexibility in business so people who want (or need) to work longer can do so, and a change in the sense of entitlement that makes people think that spending the final third of their lives in non-productive comfort is a basic human right.

But between the lines of the report is a story of waste, the kind that 600 years ago would never have been permitted. For some time, whether a person is struggling on state benefits, or is a grey-haired lotus eater on a sumptuous private pension, they are, at 60-something (and some earlier) widely regarded as having passed beyond usefulness. Society still sees retirement as a form of disposal – a sort of landfill for people. More than a third of women aged 60-64 and a quarter of men aged 65-69 may still be in work, two thirds of them part-time, but, for the rest, society has paid off the very people with the most experience and no small amount of wisdom. Golf, bowls, gardening, or day-time TV beckons.

Some do still contribute. About 30 per cent of over-60s help with voluntary organisations, two-thirds of pensioners regularly help an elderly neighbour, one in three working mothers rely on grandparents for childcare, and an unknown number are part- or full-time carers. The Lords report quotes Age UK's estimate that people over 50 make an unpaid contribution to the economy of £15.2bn a year, of £3.9bn in childcare, and £5bn as volunteers.

At this paper we know about this "work" of older people because of our Independent on Sunday Happy List, the annual project in which we present 100 people who give back and make Britain a happier, more well-adjusted place. The sixth one is published next month, and we are combing the country for the most inspiring volunteers, charity founders, teachers, conservers of our heritage or wildlife – anyone whose motive is human happiness, rather than feathering their own nest. People like the woman who lost her sight on her wedding day in 1964 and has spent much of the intervening 49 years working and campaigning for the blind; the Londoner who has fostered 850 children over the past 33 years, the 90-year-old who wing-walks for charity, and many more.

But so much more could be done, and this is why I think it high time that we harnessed the experience, time, and energy of the retired and semi-retired in a volunteer force – a Peace Corps, if you like; not for the young, as President John F Kennedy's administration founded it in the 1960s, but for older citizens. It would increase the already good numbers of those putting something back, give many "retirees" a purposeful role in life again, and do much good to those helped. Above all, it would end the wicked waste of millions of our more experienced people.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Print / Warehouse Operative

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Supply Chain Assistant

£16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Services Advisor

£13000 - £13500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Energy Broker & Sales Consultant - OTE £65,000

£18000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Long-established Energy Brokers...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The dress can be seen in different colours  

White and gold or blue and black - why has this dress captured our collective imaginations?

Victoria Richards

Daily catch-up: the battle of the election videos, and a robot sarcasm detector

John Rentoul
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower