Why shouldn’t people work beyond their 60s?

At a time when people are living longer, healthier lives it makes no sense to have a Default Retirement Age.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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Topics Politics

We’ve never had it so long. A British man currently aged 65 can expect to live, on average, into his early 80s. A woman can expect to reach her mid-80s. Yet despite our ever-increasing ability to prolong life, old age is more devalued today than in the past. Little wonder that, under current UK legislation, when you turn 65 an employer is free to retire you, whether you like it not.

Sixty-five is called the Default Retirement Age in the UK and for the past three years the charity Age Concern has been attempting to overturn it on the basis that it is in breach of European Union equality legislation. Last Friday the High Court delivered its verdict: though the current DRA is ‘unsustainable’, said Justice Blake, it should be upheld.

This wasn’t quite the victory for the government that it seems, however. The judge argued that since a parliamentary review of the DRA had been brought forward from 2011 to 2010, he was sure that the current retirement age would be raised in due course. ‘In the light of changed economic circumstances’, he concluded, ‘and the generally recognised problems that a longer living population creates for the social security system, the case for advancing the DRA beyond minimum age of 65 at least would seem to be compelling’. A spokesman at Age Concern seemed equally confident, telling spiked that ‘we believe the government is under significant pressure to get rid of the DRA’.

And so the government should. If people want to continue working beyond 65, they ought to be able to do so. Providing that there is no good reason why a person might not be able to do their job anymore, such as a 70-year-old fireman suffering from arthritis, then getting old should not mean being made redundant. In every sense.

However, many of those challenging the current DRA do so on the basis of economic necessity rather than freedom of choice for older workers. For example, Andrew Harrop, head of public policy at Age Concern, argued: ‘The need to work beyond 65 is particularly acute at a time when economic turmoil means many people have seen the value of their pensions and savings fall rapidly.’

In many ways, this recession-referencing argument does not push for the freedom to work beyond 65, but for the necessity of working beyond 65. While there should be no default retirement age, there is a danger that the current arguments against the DRA justify a form of life-long drudgery to help ease recessionary trends. If older people do want to leave paid employment for whatever reason – in order to travel, for a life of leisure or for studies – then they should also be free to do that.

Unfortunately this is where allusions or references to the ‘demographic timebomb’ or ‘the ageing society’ also fudge the issue. Arguing that people must work for longer because the ratio between young and old is ever adjusting in favour of the old misleadingly transforms what is a problem of wealth creation into a problem of demography. Although there is a fiscal issue with pensions and, more broadly, with society’s ability to support those no longer working, the central problem is not the fact that people are living longer and healthier lives – the central problem is the way society is organised. This is a social issue, not a demographic one.

Yet there seems to be something else at work in the debate around compulsory retirement; a perception of the lives of old people as somehow less valuable, not just economically, but culturally, too. Those fighting the DRA have tended to use the rhetoric of discrimination to address the problem. ‘Ageism is the last taboo’, Age Concern told spiked. ‘The problem of ageism in our society is there for all to see, as the case of the BBC getting rid of ageing news readers shows.’

Admittedly, there are some who seem to argue for compulsory retirement in terms analogous to those of a good old-fashioned racist. ‘They get old over here, taking our jobs’, seems to be the sentiment. And just as one would respond to the racist argument by arguing that the problem of unemployment is not a problem of demography but of the organisation of society, so one would respond similarly to the ageist argument that the old are taking the jobs of the young. However, as opposed to racial or sex discrimination, which draw their force from a sense of difference, not even the most ardent ageist can avoid becoming what he discriminates against: old.

What is at issue here is not ageism, but a broader cultural disavowal of growing old, of its meaning and value. Once we recognise that being old is not equivalent to being useless, and many of the more offensive pejoratives, then the argument for the freedom of people to work or not beyond 65 ceases to be an issue.

‘Many older people want to stay in work because they enjoy it’, said the Age Concern spokesman. To deny those over 65 their enjoyment is not just their loss, but ours, too – because a society that cannot value its own productive, self-motivated and keen citizens, whatever age they might be, is a society that has lost its bearings.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Phil Mullan said ‘ageism’ is not the problem and argued that older people should be freed from the chains of a fixed retirement age. Ken McLaughlin looked at the bright side of ‘later life’. Neil Davenport asked why there are so many wannabe workers. Or read more at spiked issue Ageing and pensions.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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