Work till you want

Older people should be freed from the chains of a fixed retirement age.

Phil Mullan

Topics Politics

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According to press reports, government ministers were at loggerheads over what to do about the age of retirement (1) – which many employers today fix at 65. The background for this debate is that Britain is supposed to implement a European Union (EU) directive against age discrimination by 2006. In its usual ‘listen to the people’ mode, the government launched a consultation exercise in the summer of 2003 inviting submissions on combating age discrimination at work, including the question of whether there should continue to be compulsory retirement ages.

Having failed to provide any political lead on the topic, we now see the cabinet parading its uncertainty in public. Its own confusion – some might say hypocrisy – was well illustrated by trade secretary Patricia Hewitt making warm statements about extending choice to work for over-65s, at the same time that her Department for Trade and Industry was successfully overturning an employment tribunal decision to give greater working rights to this same age group (2).

In reality, as I have outlined before on spiked, the issue should be quite straightforward (see Ageism is not the problem). The world has moved on a lot from the time when retirement first became institutionalised in industrialised democracies over 100 years ago.

With the shift away from physically demanding occupations, with the link between retirement and public pensions long broken – and this now at last being extended to private pensions too – and with most people living longer, healthier lives, remaining physically fit and mentally alert into their 70s and 80s, fixed and compulsory retirement ages are an anachronism. With or without EU directives, the progressive move would be for the government to remove all statutory or mandatory restrictions and regulations that limit people’s choice in continuing to work for as long as they wish.

Contrary to common belief, the abolition of the fixed retirement age isn’t needed for the country’s economic benefit – ageing populations are affordable without people working longer (see Ageing: the future is affordable). But if older people want to work, for whatever personal, social or financial reasons, state-endorsed compulsory retirement and other age discriminatory rules and strictures should not stand in their way. It can only be to society’s benefit not to have people forced into too early retirement.

Instead, a dithering government, which has a deserved atrocious reputation for addressing the interests of older people, has initiated another debate on ageing, giving free rein to all the usual negative stereotypes and conservative assumptions. In an article for The Times, for example, Libby Purves opposed change to the retirement age by repeating all the usual negative ideas about older people: they are ‘slow’, ‘set in their ways’, ‘shorter of breath’, ‘creakier in the knees’, and ‘stubborn’ (3).

Meanwhile business organisations, such as the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the Engineering Employers’ Federation (EEF), along with some trade unions, have joined forces to oppose change, arguing either that raising the retirement age could encourage more litigation at employment tribunals or that workers will be forced to ‘work until they drop’.

This fear of more workplace litigation is probably well founded in today’s climate. But that is surely best answered by removing regulation – which in this instance would mean abolishing any set or default retirement age or discriminatory working rights. The fewer rules in place, the fewer grounds there are for people taking legal action.

Meanwhile, in the USA and other countries that have done away with mandatory retirement, concerns that people would be forced to work long after they wanted to did not materialise. Abolishing the retirement age should mean that employers and employees will be better able to work out effective processes for facilitating gradual voluntary retirement, without the state interfering in the process with any age-related statutory provisions.

No doubt there are cost-cutting motives behind at least some of the ministerial support for abolishing or delaying mandatory retirement – but that is not a legitimate reason for opposing change. We should demand more opportunities for later working – while at the same time demanding a much better publicly funded deal for pensioners, and especially for those older people with health and other reasons for needing social support.

Phil Mullan is the author of The Imaginary Time Bomb: Why an Ageing Population Is Not a Social Problem, IB Tauris, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

Ageing: the future is affordable, by Phil Mullan

Ageism is not the problem, by Phil Mullan

(1) See ‘Work till you’re 70 plan leaked’, Sunday Times, 20 June 2004

(2) See ‘Over-65s lose working rights in landmark ruling’, Financial Times, 3 October 2003

(3) ‘How can we help people to retire with good grace’, The Times (London), 22 June 2004

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Topics Politics


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