Julian Knight: Pension timebomb? Call the forces of political correctness

Sunday 13 March 2011 01:00

You work longer and you pay more – you probably knew the drill before Lord Hutton released his report into public sector pensions last week.

But beyond the ire of the unions and the feeling that the Hutton report is a staging post to even lower retirement provision, there is an even bigger problem waiting to be tackled – how do we keep people in the workforce for longer?

Right now, public sector employers are plotting how they can "manage out" older staff, as part of the cuts programme. Either because they are seen as unproductive, difficult to train and prone to long-term sickness or simply because getting rid of someone in their late fifties or early sixties is seen as less damaging than getting rid of someone who has "their whole life in front of them".

Of late, we have had some bizarre commentaries, from, among others, the BBC's economics editor, Stephanie Flanders, that older workers are standing in the way of younger graduates and need to make way. The implication is that graduates and older workers are going for the same jobs, which isn't the case. Although the Office for National Statistics does say that the number of people in employment over the age of 65 has risen a touch, we are still in danger of reliving the mistakes of the 1980s and early 1990s recessions when generations of workers over the age of 50 were scrapped.

More widely, we have ageist employment practices. There have been countless "mystery shopping" exercises where CVs from older people were rejected in favour of the same CVs from candidates who did not give a date of birth. No wonder around half of all men over 60 and two-thirds of women – who often have to care for elderly relatives – are "economically inactive".

Most don't want to be on benefits or living off redundancy, property and savings. They want to work. But their way is blocked by ageist employers (many managers can't imagine managing someone 30 years their senior, and have a complete misconception of older people's sickness and adaptability to train) and, in many instances, lack of confidence. If society tells you that you are on the scrap heap then that's where most likely you will bed down.

Getting people to stay at work is the only way to square the pensions circle. To do this we need a fundamental change in society. In many respects, we need what the Daily Mail would no doubt call the '"forces of political correctness" to make ageist hiring and firing as unacceptable as prejudice on the basis of race, gender or sexuality. After all, is it any less hurtful to be unable to work because of the date on your birth certificate, than because of who you sleep with or your racial origin? Language itself has to change, from job adverts to conversations by the office water-cooler. We have to get serious about ageism if we are to have any chance of relieving the pensions crisis.

Did you make the most of low interest rates?

£8,798 is how much you could have knocked off a £150,000 mortgage debt if during the past two years of low interest rates you'd been systematically overpaying. All the average £150,000 borrower needs to have done – according to the number crunchers at broker firm London & Country – is to have kept the monthly repayment at the same level as in early 2009. This would also have had the twin benefits of pushing down the loan to-value ratio – negating some or all of the recent house price fall – making it easier to remortgage or even, if you have a flexible loan, allowing you to take a payment holiday should you need one in the future.

Now, with interest rates almost certain to rise soon and National Insurance going up next month, the golden period of higher disposable incomes for those with jobs and a mortgage tied to the base rate is drawing to a close. So how have you done and what is the size of your mortgage today?

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