Letter: Economic contributions of elderly people

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Sir: I was dismayed to read (10 February) the following sentence by Hamish McRae:

We are fortunate in that only a quarter of Britain's population will be over the age of 60 in 2020; in Germany and Italy it will be almost a third.

It speaks volumes: older people are an economic burden, societal ageing is a problem, and therefore we should count our blessings that we have not managed to keep as large a proportion of our citizens alive as Germany and Italy.

What a sad reflection on the current hopeless state of economic orthodoxy (your correspondent is not alone), which was mirrored in your leading article (10 February) against universal benefits such as the basic National Insurance pension. You signally failed to explain why a large section of older people (usually older women, because they do not have the same opportunities as men to occupational pensions) should have to exist on low, means-tested pensions, or why UK pensioners should have to accept 'targeting' when their Continental counterparts do not.

May I offer an alternative vision to your current editorial line? An ageing society should be viewed as a triumph of development - greater longevity is a sign of economic and social progress. But an ageing society requires changes in policy and perspective: more resources for pensions, health and social services, of course, but also new approaches in the labour market, in education and in politics. Older people should be seen as economically and socially valuable resources, in terms of skills and experience, to be harnessed by productive activity for as long as possible. On the evidence of other EC countries, there is no reason why universal pensions cannot be guaranteed in the UK.

Furthermore, to talk up the 'old age as an economic burden' thesis, as Mr McRae did, may be dangerous in an ageing society with a welfare system that is founded on an intergenerational contract. However, for those who do not share his pessimistic stance, the good news is that neither does the bulk of the British public.

In a recent national survey conducted for the EC, more than four out of five said that those in employment have a duty, through the taxes and contributions they pay, to ensure that older people have a decent standard of living, and just under three in five said that pensions are too low and should be increased, even if this means raising taxes.

Yours sincerely,


(Professor of Social Policy)

Department of Sociological


The University of Sheffield


12 February