As never-ending politically motivated austerity takes hold, more and more people will find they cannot afford to stop work. But it doesn’t have to be like this. None of this is as “inevitable” as the politicians would have us think. Many societies have an ageing population. But not all of them are willing to shove a frail 75-year-old back into a cut-throat service economy. That’s a specialism of societies that have embraced the utter madness of neoclassical economics, such as the UK and the US.
It’s almost too easy to imagine the scenario. After spending most of our adult life in paid employment, the golden day arrives. A well-earned retirement. Suddenly we’re released from the grip of office email and that long commute. Finally we can enjoy our remaining time on Earth pursuing those interests we’d never had time for, perhaps reconnecting with family and finishing those repairs on the house. Above all, time to relax.
Sadly, this probably won’t be your future … unless you’re independently wealthy. What can only be described as the “battle over work” in the neoliberal era in relation to pay and conditions has just opened another front. Retirement. And things are beginning to get nasty.
We’re now told that the real question is no longer when we will retire but if we will retire, with the prospect of working until you drop likely to become the norm. Due to an ageing population, longer life expectancy and a state pension scheme that can’t keep up, retirement might soon be a thing of the past. According to David Blake, director of the Pensions Institute at Cass Business School, “the danger now is we will have a generation who really can’t afford to retire”.
Retirement was once considered the jewel in the crown of any civilised society. Discrediting the idea that it’s acceptable for the elderly to toil late into their twilight years was one of the great achievements of the 20th century. It wasn’t just about morality, of course. There was also an economic rationale. But giving people the chance to rest after 45 years of hard slog was deemed the decent thing to do.
Not any more. Now we have entered the age of austerity, one that we’re told might never end. As a result, there’ll be no government help in your dotage. Nor will your employer’s pension plan provide enough to make ends meet. If this heartless post-crash variant of neoliberal capitalism could be summed up in one message, it would be this: you are on your own.
The important thing to remember, however, is that none of this is as “inevitable” as the politicians would have us think. Many societies have an ageing population. But not all of them are willing to shove a frail 75-year-old back into a cut-throat service economy. That’s a specialism of societies that have embraced the utter madness of neoclassical economics, such as the UK and the US.
We can trace the untimely demise of retirement to a number of assumptions about how society ought to be organised. At no other time since its inception has the welfare state been so hated by the governing elite. Social care. Unemployment assistance. Health. Local councils and libraries. Municipal parks. Anything relating to what used to be called “the public good” is attacked at the roots. Austerity redefines these things as fiscal liabilities or deficits rather than shared investments in common decency. It was only a matter of time before pensions too were put on the chopping block.
This is ideological. It’s not that there isn’t enough money to fund proper healthcare or pensions. There is. Remember the vast bank bailouts? Quantitative easing? It’s just that the cash is being directed elsewhere. Most notably to the private sector in the form of massive corporate subsidies, while public utilities are slowly being starved to the point of decrepitude and collapse.
And let’s not forget the tax revenues that aren’t being collected when economic policy is geared towards socialism for the rich and the strictest market discipline for everyone else. In 2015 Google paid €47m tax in Ireland on €22bn sales revenue. That’s a 0.21% tax rate. It means the average wage earner unfairly bears the burden of society. No wonder a happy retirement is starting to look like an untenable indulgence. If you can’t save enough to fund it on that zero-hours pub job or Uber “gig”, then hard luck.
Scrapping the right to retire fits perfectly with the ideology of work that the neocons adore so much. If your life and your job are supposed to be indistinguishable, a notion that the Chicago School of Economics perfected with “human capital theory”, then there isn’t really any place for retirement. Such “unproductive time” is economically irrational, an anomaly that econometric models won’t process.
Now the free-market thinktank hacks decide to speak up. Don’t many people over 65 actually love working? Isn’t the whole idea of retirement totally ageist? Sure, if people want to work past retirement age, that’s great. The trouble is that many soon won’t have any choice in the matter. Economic desperation will decide for them. We already see evidence of this and it’s set to get worse. While some undoubtedly enjoy working well into their later years, research shows that a secure retirement is very good for you. A German study, for example, found that retirees tend to exercise more, quit smoking and get better sleep compared to those who continue to work. As a result, hospital visits drop.
There’s clearly a lot of intergenerational resentment towards retirees at the moment. The perception is that they’ve pulled the ladder up on the millennials who are struggling in low-paid jobs, will never own a house and are laden with awful student debts – and even reports that they’re better off than workers. The disgruntlement is understandable. But it also plays into the hands of those trying to end retirement, a divide and conquer tactic that has been remarkably effective in allowing some draconian policies to flourish.
What we really need is an intergenerational alliance to be forged around the issue. Any attempt to protect the right to retire (with a pension) will also have to address the dire developments in the employment sector that are seriously disadvantaging younger people and now creeping into jobs held by 40-somethings too.
Can this cross-generational solidarity be built? It’s hard to say. But one thing is certain. We are witnessing a major regression in the treatment of the elderly, something reminiscent of Victorian times or worse, where old age was no excuse for abstaining from an unforgiving world of work. Welcome to the new dark ages.
Peter Fleming’s new book The Death of Homo Economicus (Pluto Press) will be published later this year.
This article originally appeared on TheGuardian.com.