Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Re-thinking work and retirement

By Professor Chris Phillipson

Scrapping fixed retirement age (as proposed by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in Working Better report, Phase 2 launched last week) raises concerns about social justice as well as issues about the purpose of retirement. Higher pension ages are unfair for those from working-class groups whose lower life expectancy means that they draw a pension for a significantly shorter period as compared with those from managerial and professional occupations. Manual workers invariably start work earlier than non-manual groups, leaving those with the longest contribution records receiving fewer benefits at the end of their working life. Raising the retirement age simply compounds this injustice.

Given the demographic challenge, with one in four workers aged 50 plus by 2020, emphasising the value of ‘senior workers’ appears sensible. But we need to avoid a muddled discussion about age discrimination (which it is right to challenge), and retirement from work (which people have a right to enjoy). The real challenge is giving equal priority to security in work and retirement. Key to achieving this will be policies which support the new type of retirement emerging amongst people in their 50s and 60s. To give three examples:

Informal learning is flourishing, illustrated by the growth of the University of the Third Age (U3A). But this needs matching with support from formal providers such as universities and further education colleges. The 21st Century will be a period when those 50 plus embrace different types of educational programmes – to maintain their quality of life as well as to assist continued engagement in the workplace. We need to start encouraging mainstream institutions to respond to this development.

Civic engagement in the form of environmental activism, community volunteering (at home and abroad), and inter-generational mentoring, is the new face of growing old. But this needs recognition in the form of financial support, training and networks that provide encouragement to maintain an ‘active’ rather than ‘passive’ form of ageing.

Paid work remains central for many but there are limited opportunities for developing and improving skills acquired over the life course. Taking older workers seriously will require policies which support a ‘culture of lifelong learning’ (with paid educational leave), which spread work more evenly through life (via career breaks), and which assist those with major physical and mental health problems (through strengthening occupational health). Proposals for ‘flexible working’ are fine but there is an acute shortage of good quality jobs able to provide this opportunity.

We need to re-think the balance between work and retirement rather than just increase the pension age. Life after 60 appears to be a problem because of the apparent lack of substance to the roles that supersede or run alongside those associated with paid employment. Conducting a debate about the range of activities we need to support will be an essential starting point for resolving dilemmas in a crucial area for economic and social policy.

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