Accepting the truth of our ageing society

Posted by Alexander Hay

As Manchester City Council makes up to 2000 employees retire and the government tries to repeal the current age of retirement, just how are we to deal with an ageing workforce?

As we have ever more time on our hands, what are we going to do about it?

Doctor Doolittle had, in the midst of his menagerie, a bizarre creature called a Pushmi-pullyu. In effect, two opposite-facing llamas joined at the middle (there was no attempt made to explain how it went to the toilet), the creature earned its name by constantly being at odds with itself, both pushing and pulling at the same time, hence the name.

As metaphors go, it's pretty indispensable, especially in regards to British politics, which routinely contradicts itself. Take Manchester City Council. Today it announced that - owing to central government slashing its budget - 2000 employees were to be shown the door. Rather than make these compulsory, the council is hoping willing victims will either elect for redundancy or, if they're over 55, early retirement.

But what is this in Westminster? The very same central government has this day announced that it is going to do away with the default retirement age of 65, as it rather needs to save money too. So on the one hand, we have a branch of government trying to get rid of old people from the workplace, which the main tree is doing all it can to keep them toiling away for as long as possible.

This is of course a huge contradiction. The government is in effect saying that it needs to save money on pensions by keeping people in their jobs but its knee-jerk reaction is to 'persuade' people out of their jobs and save money that way too. None of this makes sense until you remember that the oldest and the youngest always get it first (usually because the lot in the middle is in charge) and that false economies are a long and noble British tradition.

For as Miriam O'Reilly's recent victory against an ageist BBC shows, we do not have a healthy relationship with older people. This is in part because short sighted self-interest comes to the fore, but it's also rooted in history. The problem lies in our remaining in a post-1945 mindset where life expectancy was lower than it was today. In fact, it averaged out at 65.84, which was rather obviously good news for all concerned as more would be paid in tax and national insurance than was taken out. Now, with our life expectancy in the mid to high 70s, the cost is considerably higher. 

Yet our attitudes to age have not changed alongside this because the system hasn't. Every adult born since 1945 has grown up with the familiar site of over-65s retiring, claiming their pensions and then leaving their jobs behind to younger generations who would inherit and then pass them on in turn, with comforting predictability. However, the old certainties are in decline.

Take medical technology. The last 65 years have seen the average life expectancy go up by almost 14 years. As we become healthier and that medical technology continues to advance, this could - by 2075 - be over 85. That's a long time to be paying someone a pension.

Not only that, but we are also staying fitter and healthier for longer too. In 1945 the implied message of retiring at 65 was that you were physically burnt out. By contrast, a 2011 retiree has decades of free time ahead of them. Ever-growing numbers of these older people will effect the society they live in. Their tastes and needs will define our consumer and popular culture - indeed, itself is a result of this new reality.

A possible future can be seen now in Japan. Here an ever-growing number of centenarians and, more pertinently , older people needing care means not only has consumerism changed to meet this new demographic, but it has even inspired technological developments, like exoskeletons designed to boost the strength of nurses who need to lift elderly patients or - more bizarrely - a drive towards developing robotics as a source of nursing 'staff' when the labour pool inevitably shrinks. Suffice to say, the numbers of older workers and political activists have increased too, and this has begun to influence Japan itself as a result.

Of course, the Japanese experience is not necessarily our future. Its history of longevity and its present population decline, not to mention underlying cultural assumptions, are quite different from ours. Nonetheless, it isn't hard to foresee a future where large numbers of older workers, who are either healthy enough or artificially augmented enough to keep working (and indeed living) long after 65.

In the meantime, we must ask ourselves whether the old are a barrier or a resource worth tapping. As our society continues to age, the decision may soon be out of our hands.

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Alexander Hay

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