Harriet Harman is right - longer working lives are inevitable

by Dr. Ros Altmann

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  • At last politicians are waking up to the potential of helping older workers - the over 50s are the majority of voters
  • I welcome Harriet Harman's policy proposals to protect workers who want to stay on past age 65 - this is long overdue!
  • But her Government's policy currently stands in the way of longer working lives - age discrimination and means-testing prevent this
  • 'BONUS YEARS' of part-time work could benefit millions - politicians take note!
  • Don't force people to work longer, but facilitate it for them, this will benefit the economy and themselves
  • Help them cut down working hours, rather than being forced to suddenly stop altogether
  • Most people are not too old to work in their 60's, but it needs to be part-time
  • It is essential to rethink retirement in order to address pensions crisis
  • Retirement should be a process, not an event

Harriet Harman is absolutely correct to call for an end to mandatory retirement and age discrimination against the over 65s. People are not 'old' at 60 or 65 any more. Many people in their 60s and even into their 70s could benefit from doing part-time work, but Government policy currently stands in the way of this happening. I advised Number 10 on these issues for several years, but at that time the Government did not want to listen. Finally, it seems they are starting to recognise the political potential of longer working lives, as well as the fact that this is inevitable in order to address the pensions crisis.

People are living much longer and healthier lives, work is less physically demanding:
We have had tremendous advances in health care, people are living much longer and generally staying fitter and healthier. Also, legislation has ensured that work is generally far less physically dangerous and demanding. Therefore, most people are not 'too old' to keep working. This is all great news, but unfortunately, attitudes to older people in the workplace have not kept up with the tremendous advances in life expectancy, health status and work practices.

Let's radically rethink retirement
Retirement policy has not adjusted to the new realities. Age discrimination remains, and attitudes need to change urgently as our population ages. We are still throwing people onto the scrapheap as before, forcing them to live on inadequate pensions, or leaving them struggling to find whatever work they can, just to keep themselves active and earn a little extra. Many workers would like to stay on part-time, or retrain for other work and keep economically active, but find they face so many barriers that it becomes impossible.

We can invent a whole new phase of life - 'BONUS YEARS' - of part time work after a full time career
At the moment, people think of their lives in three segments. Education, then a full time career, then stopping work altogether in retirement. We need to adjust this thinking. After a full-time work career, the idea of retirement should be to cut down, rather than stop altogether. Retirement should be a 'journey' not a 'destination', a 'process' rather than an 'event'. There is a new phase of life, after the full-time career, when workers should be gradually cutting down their working hours, but not stopping altogether. These could be called 'bonus years' when people have more leisure time, less work time and much more money to spend in their extra leisure hours. Perhaps working two or three days a week, with four or five days free to do other things, but staying economically active and having more money to spend.

Longer working lives will ease the pensions crisis too
Unless people stay at work longer, what will the increasing number of older members of society live on? The state pension is hopelessly inadequate and private pensions are not delivering enough for any kind of decent lifestyle for most people. The top earners are fine, they have been able to save large amounts, but around 70%-80% of the population cannot save enough to provide good pensions that will last from age 60 or so for another 20 or 30 years. If they keep earning some money, by working part-time, then their pensions will not have to last as long and they can have more money to spend as they age.

Policy works against this - age discrimination legal after age 65
There are two major areas of policy which stand in the way of older people working part-time. Firstly, the law allows employers to sack someone just for being 'old' once they reach 65. Even if they are entirely competent, the employer can throw them out.

Pension credit penalises part time earnings over £5 a week
Secondly, by having a state pension system that relies on mass means-testing of around half of all pensioners, the least well off older people (people over age 60) who try to work part-time will be penalised for it. Pension credit penalises any earnings over £5 a week - so if you try to work part-time to supplement your income, you will lose between 40% and 100% of your earnings. Which, of course, means that policy discourages low or moderate earners from staying at work at all. This policy must be urgently reviewed, since it would be far better for older people who want to work part-time, to be encouraged to do so, rather than penalised for it.

2010 is the 65th anniversary of the end of World War II - the baby boom generation are coming up to 65 and they will not want to face decades of penury
As millions of baby boomers come up for retirement, we should not just waste their talents and skills. They have so much to offer and employers should be encouraged or forced to recognise this.

Do not waste the resources of older workers' skills and experience
Older workers bring substantial benefits to the workplace, in terms of experience, loyalty and motivation. Why waste these resources? The past thirty years' progress in life expectancy and workplace reforms mean that people can and often want to stay working, rather than suddenly stopping and having little money to live on.

Tremendous political opportunity to offer better lifestyles, with more money to older voters if they want it
Obviously, we should not force workers to keep working if they are not fit or able to, or do not wish to. But we must facilitate it for them, just as we have done for women who have young children. Older workers should have similar rights to flexible working practices and employers should facilitate this - it will be better for individuals and for the economy as a whole, rather than having millions more pensioners struggling with very little money. The opportunity is there for the taking - let's grasp it now!

ENDS

Dr. Ros Altmann
07799 404747


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