Being out of work harms your health – even if it's because you've retired

A new report finds that, after a small boost in health, retirement isn't as refreshing as many think.

A curious thing has been happening with regard to retirement patterns in developed countries: we have been living longer and retiring earlier. Between 1968 and 1999, employment amongst 60-64 year old men fell from 80 per cent to 50 per cent – although it has picked up a little since. In Italy, an incredible 80 per cent of 60-64 year olds are not in employment. This has all happened during a period when life expectation has increased dramatically. In many EU countries, a significant number of people could well spend more time in retirement than working.

Of course, as we get more prosperous we would expect to have more leisure. But there comes a point when financing a longer retirement from a shorter working life becomes unsustainable. Most EU countries, with their state pension schemes designed so that the taxes of the declining working generation pay the pensions of the older generation, have reached the point where huge financial burdens are likely to fall on the next generation of workers. One way to square the circle is to promote more private and funded pension provision. However, one of the few countries that was pursuing this policy – the UK – has now decided to change tack and increase state pensions whilst reducing incentives for private provision.

This leaves working longer as the only safety valve in the system. And many countries have, indeed, been raising state pension ages. However, a concern often expressed by those campaigning against such changes is that it will lead to more ill health. It is argued that people will suffer from stress and will not have the physical capacity to continue their working lives without damaging their health further.

Much of the evidence in this area has been mixed. The indications were that retirement and ill health were correlated but it could be that people who are not well tend to retire early. A new IEA study manages to untangle the evidence. It finds that there can be an immediate “holiday effect” from retirement whereby health improves. However, health then deteriorates after a while. It is found that, over the long term, retirement increases the probability of suffering from depression by 40 per cent and the probability of having at least one diagnosed physical condition by about 60 per cent.

This provides considerable evidence that there can be a “win-win” from the government raising the state pension age much more rapidly. Currently, the government expects to raise the state pension age to 68 by about 2047. By that time, in fact, life expectation at retirement will actually increase – longevity is increasing quicker than the state pension age is being raised. A higher state pension age could lower healthcare costs as well as reduce state pension costs. Secondly, the government should deregulate labour markets – especially for older people. Reducing the risks to employers of hiring older people is likely to widen the range of working opportunities available to them – especially with regard to part-time work. Finally, it is important to ensure that state incapacity benefits are used as a route back into work wherever possible and not used as an early retirement option. The government seems to be making good progress here but, if anything, on the first two policy options it seems to be going backwards.

A notable retiree says goodbye to his old workplace. Photograph: Getty Images

Philip Booth is Editorial and Programme Director at the Institute of Economic Affairs.


Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.