Reality of raising retirement ages

Nearly everywhere – even in France – Governments recognise that working longer as life expectancy increases is the only way to sustain the viability and adequacy of pension schemes, whether they are run by the state or offered by employers or purely private providers.   There is a lot that can be done to improve the administration, clarity and governance of schemes, but raising the number of contributing years and reducing the number of claiming years is the sine qua non.

Too many Governments have taken the legislative step, and then consider that the job is done.   Most European countries have planned to go to 67 as the notional pensionable age during the next decade.   Carelessly, few have looked at the labour market reforms which are needed to make this a realisable and practical possibility:  few have considered how to move people from physically demanding jobs to desk jobs, how to improve computer skills and provide lifelong learning and training opportunities, how to provide part-time or job-sharing options for people with caring responsibilities, or how to promote the physical and mental health and strength of people staying in the workplace for longer.   The UK Government is less slothful than many, but still pays little attention to the reality of raising pension ages, for which it has blithely legislated whilst paying scant attention to the practicalities.

On 23 May, the Age Action Alliance stepped into that gap with the launch of its new Employer Resource pack to support an ageing workforce, with an emphasis on healthy and productive older workers and their role in increased business performance.    The material can be found on the Healthy Workplaces theme page on the Alliance website, which went live the same day. Dame Carol Black was amongst the participants at the ABI marking the launch, with her inestimable enthusiasm to realise:

‘the social and business value contained in the experience, commitment and motivation of older people, by enabling those qualities to flourish.   Not only is this the key to maintaining dignity, it also makes sense to draw on this still under-valued human resource for business’.

Morrison’s Paul Wood (Head of Rewards and Benefits) took part too, with an impressive presentation of the depth of support available through his company to further this objective.

Britain has a number of big, blue-chip companies like Morrisons which get this message – BT, Asda, Nationwide, Sainsbury’s, B&Q are often cited honourably.   But the card we need to play is getting their knowledge, insights and expertise into the small business sector, which is where most people work, and where there is the least likelihood of this big company resource and professionalism being offered or provided by the small and medium business entrepreneur.   The business case for smaller employers following where the larger employers are going is undeniable, but the practicalities of doing so are enormous.   Morrisons are working with the Chamber of Commerce in their home patch of Bradford:  we need to find more ways of making links such as this, to develop shared approaches and programmes with the Federation of Small Businesses and the various local trade organisations with fewer personnel resources.   Local Enterprise Partnerships may have a part to play, but so must Government efforts through the Work Programme and Job Centre Plus.   The Minister for Pensions, Steve Webb, has properly welcomed the Age Action Alliance initiative, but the agenda for Government must go onward to provide leadership and practical action, beyond simply offering information and encouragement.

Without action in the workplace, simply raising the pension age risks increasing the number of unemployed older workers, and thereafter the number of poorer pensioners.   The models and solutions are there, but without the sticks and carrots to see them properly mainstreamed the great bulk of employees will not see or access them – a loss to the individuals trying to earn a living and a pension, and to UK plc.

Mervyn Kohler, Special Adviser, Age UK

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