Rights, pensions and retirement

Here in the prosperous (and yes, deep in a recession we are still prosperous) West we have come to believe in our right to a long retirement. We work like a dog for forty or forty-five years, then it all stops – and for for another twenty or thirty, we sit at home and do nothing.

Crazy, crazy notion.

Work is what makes us and defines us. We live in a society where “do” and “are” are interchangeable.

“What do you do?”

“I am a doctor”

Then, suddenly, at age sixty-five:

“What do you do?”

“I am retired, I used to be a doctor. Now I am a non-person.” But you are the same person as you were before you retired: only your occupation has changed.

When retirement pensions were introduced in the UK by Lloyd George, the retirement age for men was seventy. Most men died younger; few who retired drew their pension for long.

What has happened now is that our lifespan has increased and the retirement age has been forced down, politically. It is unsustainable. It doesn’t really matter what happens to pension funds and the stock market; the fact is, someone has to do the work.

We need to change our attitude to retirement. We need to enjoy work now, and expect to be working for as long as we are fit and able to do so.  When, as it inevitably does, physical degeneration takes its toll, we should expect to cut down or change what we do.  A civilised and prosperous society such as ours should provide the necessary social care in our final years, but it will only be able to afford to do so if we keep working – and paying taxes – as long as we can.  Those of us who have money-purchase pension schemes will almost certainly have to do so anyway.

Since we cannot expect the long years of retirement that our parents enjoyed, if our lives are not to be one long spell of wage-slavery we therefore need also to be more flexible about work. Sabbaticals, career breaks and unpaid holidays should replace the emptiness of retirement, and good employers should encourage them. But perhaps we need to move beyond the idea of employment, of a nine-to-five job and a monthly paycheque. When we work “for” an organisation, we become part of it. It is up to us, therefore, to make our employers “good employers”, to influence and to change organisational culture.  We might well work at several “jobs” simultaneously, some paid, some unpaid, some salaried, some dependent on what we sell.  This variety in what we do will help us cope with the tedium of a life of nothing but work…

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