The state should not decide when people retire

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Before the arrival of the welfare state, it was common for people to work until their death, or until infirmity prevented them from earning their crust. In those days, the concept of compulsory retirement was yet to be born, along with compulsory schooling and all the other provisions that we have grown so used to since modern welfare provision began to make its appearance in Britain and Germany.

Before the arrival of the welfare state, it was common for people to work until their death, or until infirmity prevented them from earning their crust. In those days, the concept of compulsory retirement was yet to be born, along with compulsory schooling and all the other provisions that we have grown so used to since modern welfare provision began to make its appearance in Britain and Germany.

Now, thanks to a clause buried deep in the EU's Amsterdam Treaty, of 1997, there are plans to end the practice of compulsory retirement from work. Yesterday, Margaret Hodge, the employment minister, told a committee of the House of Commons that a working group would be set up, which will include sceptical employers' organisations, to examine ways in which this objective can be met by the required date of 2006. Not before time, for this is one aspect of the welfare state that has outlived its usefulness.

It is very satisfying when enforcing a human right simultaneously assists in solving an economic problem. Within a few decades, demographic trends - fewer children, longer lives - will mean that there may not be enough people at work to pay for the pensions of those who have left employment. If only a relatively small number of people choose to continue working a few more years, there will no longer be a pensions problem.

In the modern flexible workplace, the idea of a fixed retirement age is faintly absurd. Why should anyone, male or female, be forced to give up work by 65 - an arbitrary age, chosen more than a century ago - if they don't want to, and are still fit to carry out their labours? It should be left up to individuals, not the state, to determine when to stop, or slow down, whether that is at 55 or 75. And the reality is that people who choose to carry on working into their late sixties will be of benefit to their employers and will help to end labour shortages in many sectors.

What we now think of as the normal pattern of work and leisure is just a by-product of the requirements of the industrial age; with the passing of that pattern, there is no reason to expect everyone to tie themselves to the workplace until they are too old, or too bored, to tend to the needs of production lines and their ancillary services. The information age, fortunately, can make use of workers of all ages and ranges of experience. Now, all we need is a legislative framework that will free us to choose just when we work and when we play.

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