Robert Chesshyre: Too old to work but too young to retire – a 21st-century dilemma

After disparities in wealth and health, the most obvious problem that faces Iain Duncan Smith is: where is the work to be found that we are all going to do?

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Until modern times, most men (and women) worked till they died. No pensions for hunter-gatherers or medieval villeins. But we live in a softer era, and we expect comfortable and dignified old ages.

Thus far, thus good. However, although we yet fall well short of Noah's reputed age of 950, we survive far longer than when the retirement ages for state pensions – 60 for a woman and 65 for a man – were set. By 2060, there will be 350,000 centenarians in Britain. Happily, very few of us now retire on Friday and die on our allotments within a year.

Like much else, the last government kicked this issue into the longish grass, and Iain Duncan Smith (once the derided man at the despatch box with the irritating cough and now, as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the champion of concerned Conservatism) is right to address it. We live longer, therefore we should (must) work longer, and, besides, we cannot afford to keep 10 million (by 2050, 19 million) at the present pension starting points. But that is where consensus ends.

Where you come down on the issue is very much determined by what you do and how well off you are. Ernest Hemingway called "retirement" the "ugliest word in the language". Maybe that's why he put a shotgun to his head aged 61. This week I have been in the Durham coalfield meeting ex-miners, "retired" at about 50 when the pits closed in the early 1990s. They were by then exhausted men, bodies racked and ruined by 35 years on their bellies hewing coal a mile beneath the sunlight.

I was once a colleague of the late Bill Deedes who was working as a reporter in his nineties (Private Eye joked that, as a young man, Deedes covered the Battle of Waterloo), and a friend of the family made the front page of the Daily Express – "Britain's Oldest Working Man" – by going to work (in the 1950s when very few reached such an age) on his 100th birthday. He was a solicitor in his own firm. I had an acquaintance who, by 38, had earned enough money (in a hedge fund) not to have to work again. He is, of course, busily looking for work.

That disparity of working experience is the first conundrum for anyone seeking to devise a one-size-fits-all pensions formula. Rail Maritime and Transport Union general secretary Bob Crow added spice to the debate by announcing that IDS's thus far modest proposal – that from 2016 pensions should be postponed for one year – was driving us back to the "days of Dickens". I am with Crow in spirit, even if he has yet to master hyperbole.

It is well established that those who live longest are the most affluent, and it is also true that the most affluent can afford not only to retire early if they wish but also to live well – even if boarding a 3,000-berth cruise liner is their idea of living well. Bob Crow again: "If you are a rich banker you can sail off on your yacht at 55." It is true that there are not many yachts anchored off the coast of the Durham coal field.

After disparities in wealth and health, the most obvious problem that faces IDS is: where is the work to be found that we are all going to do? Exceptions such as Deedes apart, most people are surplus long before they reach the finishing line. There may no longer be (many) pits, but should we ask men to continue emptying dustbins, driving white vans or building high-speed rail tracks deep into their sixties?

Other jobs are time-capped by their very nature. Would we be happy to fly off to Tenerife having spotted a white-haired aircraft captain with a slight tremor being helped into the cockpit? Or do we want a doctor with "surgeon's shake" performing delicate brain operations on our nearest and dearest? And if such folk are no longer fit for purpose, should they be packed off to the local FE college to retrain – and for what?

Those in sedentary occupations frequently find their employers eager to award the gold watch (or, more likely, the insincere handshake) long before they reach 65. Young people are no longer, if they ever were, desperate for the "wisdom" of their elders: the guy lingering from the days of Bakelite phones and clacking typewriters is, at best, a bore (the past is another country) and at worst an "old fart". Who wants to employ or commission someone old enough to be their mother or father?

In any case (and this is a genuine problem), there are too few jobs to go round. Hospitals brand people they can't discharge as "bed-blockers": the worker who won't quit is a "desk-blocker". So redundancy is wrapped with a pretty ribbon and called a "package", and off thousands trot with a lump in their throats to their particular sunsets. If they do work on, there are only so many supermarket shelves to be filled.

Many claim that retirement is the best thing that ever happened to them, and for some it is true. But others are hollow behind the eyes and their enthusiasm clearly counterfeit as they tell you at the golf club bar: "I'm that busy that I don't know how I ever managed to fit in a full-time job." Sticking those stray photos into albums has a strictly limited appeal. Some become, willingly or not, full-time grandparents, an economic necessity for the family and for the wider economy when both parents must work to pay the mortgage. Many love it, but by no means all. I am off to a hut beside a Caribbean beach if childcare ever threatens to be my day job. Done that.

For years there has been chatter about "transferable" skills. "There's no such thing as a job for life," intone the cliché-mongers, who have probably sat on such a job all their lives. It is the sort of management-efficient, progressive assertion which – sounding good in theory – is hard to convert into reality. Throughout time, people have tended to follow a single calling. And the assertion is invariably aimed at those at the bottom of the economy. No one tells a cancer doctor, a solicitor or a professor of early English texts that they should polish their "transferable" skills.

None of this, I'm afraid, is helpful to IDS, assailed on one side by the Crow faction ("Dot" Gibson, another "general secretary" – in her case, the National Pensioners' Convention – stated that raising the retirement age is "a direct attack on the very poorest in our society") and on the other side confronted by one of those many black holes that now threaten the nation's finances as surely as the winter's pot holes threaten the highways.

I have reached an age when some, at least, of my contemporaries are, for better or for worse, "retired". And I am, therefore – when I am seen more obviously than usual to be twiddling my thumbs – occasionally asked if I am "retired". I never intended to retire. I don't intend to retire, and I stand with Hemingway in regarding "retirement" as an ugly word. I am, I tell such inquirers, "momentarily unemployed". But then, I haven't mined coal or emptied dustbins all my working life.

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