Raising the pension age will just turn 69-year-olds into the "undeserving poor"

The Institute of Directors is wrong to call for raising the pension age; it's not a magic money tree

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.

An elderly man hoes a field in Havana: is Cuba the Institute of Directors' dream for Britain?

Nigel Stanley is the head of communications at the TUC. He blogs at ToUChstone.

GETTY
Show Hide image

Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue