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

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

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

Copywriter - Corporate clients - Wimbledon

£21000 - £23000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Copywriter - London As a Copywrite...

Horticulture Lecturer / Tutor / Assessor - Derbyshire

£15 - £18 per hour: Randstad Education Nottingham: As a result of our successf...

Retail Lecturer / Assessor / Tutor - Derbyshire

£15 - £18 per hour: Randstad Education Nottingham: Randstad Education are succ...

Business Studies Tutor / Assessor / Lecturer - Tollerton

£15 - £18 per hour: Randstad Education Nottingham: Randstad Education are succ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Save the tiger: 7 saddening facts about the extinction of Javan tigers

Harvey Day
 

In Sickness and in Health: After months of silence, Nick has started talking

Rebecca Armstrong
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried