The news that people in the UK are going to be made to work for longer before being allowed to claim their state pension is causing serious disquiet.
Britain has an ageing population, as life expectancy has steadily increased. Consequently, the amount needed from taxing the working population to raise money to pay for the elderly will increase over time. There have been reviews by this government and the last as to how to deal with this, which had until recently encouraged people to start saving at a younger age and announced that in twenty-years the age by which people start claiming their pension would be raised.
But the timetable to increase the retirement age has been dramatically moved forward and suddenly, people in their fifties and early sixties are faced with the fact that they will have to work for significantly longer. This policy change disproportionately affects women, who were already aware that their previous retirement age of 60 was to be equalised with men to 65-years. Now both men and women will be asked very shortly to work until 66, and eventually this will rise to 67 or 68-years of age.
The reason for the acceleration of the timetable is the dire state of the public finances; and the reason these are as bad as they are is because of government intervention to save the banking sector from collapse, following its greedy reckless dealings.
Tax rises, public spending cuts and ‘quantitative easing’ [i.e. printing more money to improve the flow of money, which in turn makes prices rise] – all of these have hit the ordinary man and woman more than those in the finance sector, who enjoyed the profits in the years of plenty.
But it seems particularly perverse that the over sixties – a section of the population who are likely to include a larger proportion of vulnerable people – are having to bear this specific policy measure.
However, the issue uncovers wider problems and attitudes in modern capitalist nations.
Why are the elderly so dependent on pensions? An Islamic society would not have institutionalised universal state pensions, because so many of the rules and values of Islam work towards the protection of the core unit of the family – which is the bed rock of society. As such, when people age, weaken or get ill, they can largely rely on the safety net of their children and grandchildren, who bear the burden of responsibility for their elders as their elders did for them when they were young. People can continue to work for as long as they are able; or can retired when they have to. Either way, the system is more flexible, specific to the needs of individuals and has the safety of family – or the State IF the family cannot meet the burden, or if they do not have family.
Western capitalist societies have seen a fracturing of family life. This is down to many reasons, but two are worth mentioning: the free movement of labour and a change in social attitudes .
The industrial revolution, which did generate greater wealth [albeit disproportionately shared] also led to people migrating from small towns, villages and rural areas to cities in order to find work. Once working in the cities, they made them their homes, settled down and started families. The older generation left behind in the non-urban centres became dislocated from the younger members of their family; and the natural intergenerational caring became practically harder.
Social attitudes have changed greatly over the last half century. The collective spirit generated in the war years and sense of community that arose from Christian ethics was replaced by individualism. In 1945, expressions such as ‘nimbyism’ [NIMBY = "not in my back yard"] and WIFM ['what's in it for me?'] did not exist. Families were generally closer knit than they are today. The term ‘personal responsibility’ is used to apply to financial management these days as much as anyone else.
In capitalist theory, the voluntary and charity sector would have been expected to expand to help. But it did not expand sufficiently to compensate for these change in family relationships and communities and, in truth, could never have been expected to do so with the rise in individualism and the speed of social and economic changes. Moreover charity for the aged doesn’t move TV personalities and rock-stars to campaign in a way that poverty and children’s issues do – even when some of these ‘stars’ are in their fading years themselves.
Trying to fix the pension problem, which is a HUGE burden on the state, but which has become a vital necessity for so many vulnerable people in a fractured society, is a nearly impossible circle to square. The proposed patchwork solutions will most likely lead to new problems that themselves will require patchwork solutions. It’s what you might call ‘political palliative care’.
Dr. Abdul Wahid is a regular contributor to New Civilisation. He is currently the Chairman of the UK-Executive Committee of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Britain.