Leading Article: When I get older

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The Independent Online
NONE of us is getting younger, but more of us are getting older - not just in absolute terms, but as a proportion of the population. The implications of this trend receive too little public attention. So the Carnegie Trust is performing a service by commissioning a series of reports from research institutes into what it calls the Third Age, embracing those between 50 and 74. In Britain these 'third- agers' already number 14 million, a figure expected to increase to 18 million over the next 40 years. At the other end of the age scale, the sharp decline in the birth rate in the Seventies will cut the number of young people in the labour force. By 2030 there will be 42 state pensioners per 100 people of working age, against the present 30.

The first two reports, published today, examine respectively the employment and income of these 50- to 74-year-olds. The first notes (and deplores) inter alia the tendency of employers to shed older workers: the number of men and women in the 60 to 64 age group still working has almost halved since 1971, and never before has there been such a massive withdrawal from work by men below 65 as during the present recession: a waste of resources bound to result in higher taxation for the working population.

The second report examines the shrinking value of state pensions since they were linked to prices rather than average incomes, of which they now average only 15 per cent. Its authors suggest that, because the levels of private pensions and other sources of income are growing, state pensions 'no longer represent a well-targeted benefit'.

To most of those who have paid National Insurance contributions and regard the flat- rate pension as an inalienable right, the idea that it should be means tested to leave more money available for the neediest will be shocking. An open debate is needed. At present, policy is being conducted by stealth: the value of pensions has been eroded, with funds being transferred to means-tested benefits.

The Carnegie Inquiry's overall conclusions and recommendations, based on no fewer than nine studies, will be published next April. No doubt they will support one of the main arguments of these first two reports: that all concerned should rethink their attitudes to middle and old age. Most of us are not only living much longer than our grandparents, but are liable to remain healthy, active and potentially productive into our late seventies. Logically, therefore, retirement should no longer be imposed at a fixed age, but phased in. Ageism should come to be seen not only as wrong, but as contrary to the best interests of employers.

Sadly for third-agers, logic is not all on their side. When the young have children and heavy mortgages to support, they need their wages more urgently than older employees whose children have grown up and whose mortgages may have been paid off. As for phased retirement, it would greatly complicate all company calculations about recruitment, pensions and the like. The present trend is towards premature rather than delayed retirement. The report suggests various correctives, including retraining. None is likely to alter the seemingly instinctive preference of employers for staff younger than themselves. The Carnegie cure for that trait will be awaited with interest.