David Randall: Pensioners should pull their weight

Millions with great experience and wisdom are paid to do nothing for longer. We could put such talent to more constructive use

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On my computer there is a file to which every so often I add a few desultory thoughts. It is one of my more satirical ideas of how to occupy myself when the newspaper industry has no further need of me: to spend my retirement writing a history of retirement. I got the file out again last week and added a few notes after Lord Hutton's report on public sector pensions.

Not that I was terribly interested in the details of entitlement, sliding scales, and other calculations that the former minister made, although they seemed sound enough. What got my ageing pulse racing was not the actuarials, but the concept of retirement that so many people cling to: that we should be entitled to spend an increasing percentage of our lives paid partly – or for many, wholly – by the state to do what we want, whether it is golfing, rambling, travelling, growing prize begonias, minding our grandchildren, volunteering, or slumped in front of daytime television. It is, I think, a freak of the late 20th century whose time should now be gone. To demonstrate, allow me a little historical detour.

If you look at census returns of the late 19th century, only very occasionally do you see in the column labelled "occupation" that those in their seventies and eighties had written the word "retired". There is a reason for this: most people worked till they dropped. In the United States in 1880, for instance, more than three-quarters of those aged 64 and older were in work. Old-age poverty was then a major problem. British workhouses were, by the 1890s, almost exclusively depositories for the elderly. Most work was hard, manual drudgery, and, in an age when people lived shorter lives and aged faster, there came a time when they were no longer capable of labouring or servanting. And so, after a vigorous campaign led by trade unions, an old-age pension was introduced in 1909. It was worth five shillings (then a quarter of the average wage), means-tested (someone visited you and assessed not only your income, but your furniture). It depended on you not having refused work when you were capable of doing it, on you not having been imprisoned or an habitual drunk, and having lived in the country for 31 years.

The school-leaving age then was 12, and the pension was paid when you reached 70 (which only 24 per cent of the population managed – compared with 84 per cent now). Thus, you might well have worked for 58 years before collecting it. The qualifying age was 18 years beyond the average male life expectancy of 52 (women scraped to 55). If we convert those figures to today, we would, based on working years, have a pension age approaching 80 for graduates, and 75 for non-graduates. And, if we used life expectancy (now 77 for males, 81 for women) to compare retirement ages, it would be 95 for men. Go forward a few decades, and, with rising life expectancy, you can posit that the 1909-equivalent pension age, by 2050, would be in the region of 104.

Now the life chances of the Edwardian working man are clearly not a basis for us to calculate pensions today, but the figures underline just how far the concept of a pension has shifted – from a poverty-relieving discretionary emolument to an entitlement which enables the average person to spend at least a quarter of their adult life in annuited – and, in many cases, enforced – leisure. The question should not be whether we – with or without private arrangements – can afford this financially, but whether we can afford, in social and commercial respects, to have the bulk of people in their late fifties and older not only contributing far less in taxes than they once did, but not contributing their experience either. And they are made very aware that – for all the voluntary work they do – no one any longer deems them worthy of hire. You are what you do, and millions with years of highly useful life in them just aren't any more.

Ah, comes a voice from the back, that's all right for you – you do a stimulating, enjoyable job in pleasant conditions with congenial people, and you can carry on writing until your brain gives out. What about the workers? Those to whom work is a chore they are glad to be free from?

And there, indeed, is the problem. Although work and working conditions have improved immeasurably since 1909, our concept of retirement has outstripped it. It is no longer the state we assume when we cannot do what we did; it has become, for millions, the very purpose of doing what we do: the leisured reward for turning up each weekday morning for 40-odd years. Is that, we might usefully ask school- and university-leavers, a sensible or rewarding way to look at your life?

And is this – although he doesn't seem to realise it yet – where David Cameron's Big Society comes in? If we can't change attitudes to work overnight, can we extend the contributing life of those in their sixties? Can we mobilise them? How about pension credits for those who give some – or all – of their time to social projects and services? Why not a peace corps for the over-60s? Why not an organised, nationwide scheme of mentoring, both for those in work and out of it? Why not better-off pensioners prepared to donate state benefits they do not need to regional investment funds run by themselves which put money into young people's businesses? Why not promotion of the idea that the point of life is not merely to reach retirement as soon as possible? Why not do something about the sheer bloody aimlessness of the lives of millions of people paid to do nothing for an increasing percentage of their lives?

These things will not happen by themselves. They need kick-starting. They could be more palpable signs of a bigger society than the one we have now.

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