Off message: Age and pensions timebombs exploded

Age discrimination laws have had one beneficial side effect – they allow us to explode the pensions timebomb myth.

In 1798, Thomas Malthus predicted that the world’s population would double and double and double until there was not a paving stone without a person standing on it and not enough food to feed everyone. The result, he predicted, would be conflict and famine and widespread death and destruction. All very bleak. But then he was an economist.

Now, looking at the alarming rises in the global population, particularly the growth in developing countries, any right-minded individual would be concerned that the world was, indeed, going to end up with nose-to-tail people mountains. To avoid this fate, we’d all have to desert our comfortable homes and move into some futuristic, broadband-enabled live-work pod-like structures to preserve the planet by reducing our carbon footprints, moving around less and cutting our food intake. All work and play would take place online in some state-enabled virtual landscape.

Clearly there’s a big element of Ginsters biggest ever pork pie floating across the sky in all that. But even though we now know that Malthus got it wrong about the exponential growth of the population, he did get some things right – one being that it is in the workplace that we must adapt to survive.

Bleak future

As the 20th century progressed the world’s population did look like it was going to expand out of control, especially in emerging countries. But what is true of a developing country/economy is not true of a developed nation lo and behold population growth goes into reverse, with less births, later births and only a slight increase in population growth. This is all down to better healthcare, diets, and healthier lifestyle choices (ie, the smoking ban), and better living conditions. Of course, there are still plenty of places where progress hasn’t slowed the population growth, but in the developed world at least, if you were to believe the prophets of doom, it does seem that the working population is going to get older, and that there’s this great big thermonuclear ‘age timebomb’ hanging over us like a latter day Little Boy or Fat Man – the US’s very own population reduction experiments of the Second World War.

Before the current government’s introduction of theAge Discrimination Act, things would indeed have been bleak for anyone passing their 65th birthday without a proper pension in place. However, now that employers are no longer able to legally conspire against older workers, the likelihood of the age timebomb ever being primed to create a nice big grey mushroom cloud has drifted back from the likely to become increasingly implausible, despite what some think-tanks might like to suggest.

One such think-tank, the Work Foundation, produced a fine report in 2006, The Ageing Workforce. In among the useful statistics (the fact that older people are less likely to leave jobs and are not actually a drain on resources because, contrary to popular belief, they don’t actually take much time off sick) and the not so useful number crunching (apparently the median age of the population is rising – essentially the lower end doesn’t change from nought and there are a few more people passing the 100-mark, which like any ‘median’ statistic bumps up the mid point substantially, but bears little resemblance to real life) – the report touched on the real headache for employers, the government and the ageing workforce: the pensions crisis.

Doubts have been voiced about the impact of the age regulations, and initial assessments suggest that they have made little inroad into the ingrained attitudes of employers, particularly in the professional realms of the lawyers, accountants and the like, where opportunities for older graduates continue to decline.

But by giving older workers the same rights to fair play in the workplace and the option of requesting the chance to work beyond 65, by setting out its plans to re-establish the link between pensions and earnings – a link broken by Margaret Thatcher and something a Conservative government would be entirely likely to veto – and with its plan to raise the retirement age to 68, the government has provided the UK with an unexpected opportunity.

For the ageing population and the pensions crisis (regularly explored in detail in the pages of Personnel Today) need not be a problem, as the answer has been staring us in the face for some time.

Don’t have pensions.

Utopian dreams

It’s 100 years since the Old Age Pensions Act introduced the first general pension, but the world has moved on, and now that the age discrimination legislation has given older workers the rights they should have had all along, there is no reason to continue dreaming of, and struggling to fund, the idyllic – dare I say non-existent, for most people – retirement utopia.

All the evidence points to the fact that people don’t necessarily want to stop working, as when they do embark on a tepid life in the slow lane they seize up, lose their capacity to think, their health deteriorates, and they do become a drain on society.

If there were no state pension, and those who could were obliged to carry on working, albeit part-time, perhaps topped up with employment benefit (as opposed to unemployment benefit), they’d all be healthier, happier and less of a drag for the rest of society and its precious resources (or should that be profits), and they’d even be contributing to profits and paying tax.

Employers would be happy, people would have to take responsibility for their actions throughout their lifetimes and, basically, everyone would be a winner.

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