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

Employment Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - Senior Employment Solici...

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Opponents of Israel's military operation in Gaza are the real enemies of Middle Eastern peace

Gabriel Sassoon
The economy expanded by 0.8 per cent in the second quarter of 2014  

Government hails latest GDP figures, but there is still room for scepticism over this 'glorious recovery'

Ben Chu
Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little