Early retirement for the rich, retirement at 70 for the poor.

The discussion of a retirement age of 70 as proposed by the Productivity Commission and the Grattan Institute over the last week is remarkable in that it does not engage with any questions of the changing nature of work and employment and how this might impact on the capacity of many people to keep working until advanced ages. It is also remarkable that neither of the institutions engages with questions of social equity around the proposal.

The proposal is for an age pension eligibility age of 70 and, on the part of the Grattan Institute a superannuation preservation age of 70. These in some ways set an expectation of a social norm of a ‘retirement age’ but in fact there is no ‘retirement age’. In some industries or companies in the past there was a ‘retirement age’ when workers were expected to depart but these have been mostly phased out over the past 30 years in any case because of industry closures or downsizing and the inducement of retrenchment ‘packages’ – as well as employment practices that make life too hard for older workers to stay on.

The single factor which determines the age of retirement for most people is whether they can afford it or not. Affordability of retirement might be achieved through savings and canny investments, as well as trading in an over-priced suburban house in burgeoning capital cities. Then the question of affordability in the lives of mature age people is often triggered by job loss, discouragement in looking for work, or a feeling that they no longer can cope with their present work situation. Age discrimination is a large factor in all these scenarios and one airily brushed over by the Productivity Commission and not considered at all by the Grattan Institute.

Then there are two groups of those who do keep working until relatively advanced ages. The first of these are people who can’t afford to retire before they are eligible for an age pension, and a few who wish to increase their savings. They are driven by monetary considerations. The second group consists of those who keep working because they like to and they can. The advanced age of many judges, doctors and some other professionals attests to this. Presumably, they find their occupations satisfying at many levels – the intellectual stimulation, power, prestige, and sense of purpose. Money is not really in the equation in terms of retirement for this group at all.

It is of course the greatest irony that those in the most difficult jobs are also the lowest paid. Precisely the workers in these jobs will be the ones forced to stay in them longest but may face the most challenges in doing so.

The proposal also disadvantages women whose lifetime incomes, superannuation and savings are s are significantly lower than those of men as the recent COAG report Tracking Equity: Comparing outcome for girls and women across Australia testifies.

Many jobs and occupations don’t lend themselves well to older age workers. And relatively few workers have the privilege of hanging on to a comfortable career track through their working lives. Occupations chosen early in life need be discarded because of technological advances, skills or industry obsolescence, or because they are too physically demanding. Many occupations have also become increasingly demanding and stressful. Even as a healthy older worker you may be challenged by the ever increasing performance demands in many jobs that were traditionally safe havens of employment.

All these factors create vast new social risks for older workers. The Productivity Commission posits the idea that those with impaired capacity for workforce participation will be able to access a disability pension before the age pension eligibility age. Age pension eligibility is based on income and assets excluding the family home. The disability support pension adds a layer of an eligibility requirement of ‘impairment’ for income support. Over recent years, governments have sought to reduce outlays on disability payments by shifting definitions of ‘impairment’ making it more difficult to access this payment. It is hard to see that this trend in policy will diminish in years to come with the so-called ‘budget’ crisis portrayed by the Grattan Institute.

It is alarming that many older workers in their sixties will be forced on to unemployment payments – the disgracefully low Newstart allowance at a mere $250 per week. This will mean many people in their 60s will be forced into poverty and at greater risk of homelessness.

Both institutions hold to an excessively narrow view of health and capacity. They present the logic that because life expectancy has increased and the burden of disease reduced at older ages, there is a capacity to work longer. But the logic is flawed. Ageing is a complex phenomenon in the lives of individuals with greatly diverse trajectories.

Consider the following. Your health is good but you find peak hour crowded trains or the crawl up the freeway utterly exhausting. You are a good, reliable worker performing to high standards but have trouble meeting the brutal performance requirements – in the name of ‘productivity’ of course – in many occupations and industries. You are an excellent teacher, aged care worker, technician, cleaner, admin officer… but the increasing pressures and demands within the occupation have increased your stress and anxiety. You frequently feel unwell and unable to cope. You have run a coffee shop for a number of years but find that getting up at 5am each morning intolerable and the strain of employing staff and dealing with customers too much.

The reports of the Productivity Commission and Grattan Institute  for a later ‘retirement’ age fail to engage with these major barriers to later life labour force participation. The present arrangements for an increase in the pension eligibility age to 67 by 2023 will significantly disadvantage many older people – the proposal to impose another 3 year wait for the pension will mean further hardship for those already doing it tough.

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