Increasing the state pension age to pay for better pensions is a popular policy on the right. The Institute of Directors (pdf) are the latest to call for a rapid increase beyond 70.
It is easy to see the attraction. If you reduce the number of pensioners, then you can increase what each one gets from the state without putting up the pensions bill. Both employers and employees can contribute less to a pension if it is supporting fewer retirement years.
Increasing the pension age has become a magic money tree for pensions wonks as by definition they have no interest in the income needs of those yet to retire.
But while we cannot ignore the challenge of increased longevity, every increase in the pension age redistributes money from poor pensioners with shorter life expectancies to those from professional backgrounds who live longer.
And while longevity has increased for all social groups, the gap between rich and poor is growing. As the ONS say in just four years:
The gap between the health areas with the highest and lowest life expectancies at birth increased over the period from 9.8 to 11.3 years for males and from 8.2 to 10.1 years for females. At age 65, the gap increased from 6.7 to 8.5 years for men and from 6.3 to 8.3 years for women.
If you are only going to live to 75, you lose a much bigger proportion of your pension with an increase in the state pension to 70 than a centenarian will do. MPs who get on the Jubilee line at Westminster can see life expectancy drop by one year for each stop to Canning Town.
The other big problem with this policy is that it assumes that the pension losers in their late 60s can continue to work. Of course, many would welcome the opportunity to extend their working lives – and the coalition was right to abolish the statutory retirement age – but what looks attractive to knowledge workers with interesting jobs may simply not be an option, let alone a choice, for the less skilled and manual workers with dull or heavy jobs.
The differential state pension ages for men and women means that the poorest men who cannot work in their early 60s at the moment can at least claim means tested pensioner benefits before the state pension age as EU law does not allow age discrimination in benefits.
But with womens’ state pension age rapidly catching up with mens’ this loophole is closing. Soon we will have a situation where someone who is 66 will be a member of the deserving poor because they will be seen as pensioners, while 65 year olds will still be among the work-shy scrounger unemployed category of the undeserving poor. They may be tired, worn-out and not very fit, but that will not be enough to satisfy ATOS that they cannot work.
Yet when the TUC did a detailed breakdown of the labour market position of 64 year olds before the recession we found that more than half of 64 year old men were economically inactive – some through choice, but doubtless many would prefer to be working.
Longevity increases inevitably bring change, but rapid increases in the state pension age are extremely unprogressive. Even a more gradual increase requires action to reduce health inequalities and to provide more flexible routes to retirement that end the cliff-edge between full-time work and full-time retirement. Yet employer groups were mostly opposed to scrapping the mandatory retirement age, and with continuing high unemployment, there is little pressure for creative thinking from employers about keeping older people in work.