Let's ban retirement

<strong>Taken from The <em>New Statesman</em> 29 March 1968</strong>

The problem of what to do wit

I wonder whether we shouldn’t just quietly do away with all elderly persons on the eve of their 60th birthdays? It could be done in a gentle fashion, with a celebrational (but suitably spiked) loving cup, and the system would carry with it many advantages. In Britain we could stay patient, knowing that the Wilson dynasty could not possibly run for more than another eight years. And (perhaps most appealing of all) Le Général De Gaulle would have fallen asleep forever way back in 1950.

There would, of course, be disadvantages. Picasso would have left us in 1941, Malcolm Muggeridge would have disappeared from the box five years ago, and our Lord Thomson of Fleet would never have got around to buying up The Times.

But on the whole the deal might pay off. On Wednesday the Office of Health and Economics (which is funded by the pharmaceutical industry, but which — given a chance produces excellent and objective commentaries on the medical scene) published a booklet on old age. This document tells us one person in eight in Britain is now over the age of 65. That makes six million of them, and looking after them costs the nation £l,650m. every year. And that is more than twice the extra money young Chancellor Roy Jenkins aims to milk out of our dried-up udders during the course of the coming year.

So the answer is simple — get rid of all the old grey-beards and silver-knobs, and we should have more than enough in hand to pay the interest on our debts, and to go for holidays in Spain, and to get the Concorde into the air, and even to put our brave lads back again East of Suez.

Out of the £l,600m.-odd total each year which the over-65s do cost us, about £400m. is spent on the medical care they get under the NHS, and this sum represents about 30 per cent of the cost of the service — despite the fact that the over 65s amount to only 12 per cent of the population. The OHE expects this figure of £400m. to rise further in the years ahead, as the numbers of the elderly increase, and as the care they receive becomes more adequate. So here again a routine euthanasia would do the rest of us a power of good, leading to comfortably uncrowded waiting rooms in doctors’ surgeries, and a chance to go into hospital for a hernia operation in something under the standard 18 months.

Up until fairly recently we were able to tolerate the old. They came in useful for baby-sitting, and there weren’t too many of them, but their number (taking the age of 65 as ‘old’) has increased four-fold in Britain since the turn of the century. They have (the cheek of it!) multiplied more rapidly than any other age group. This is largely because of penicillin and the Pill. The first has allowed the living to survive, and the second has reduced the chance of coming alive. So that there are now more old people, and fewer youngsters. But, as the OHE booklet gracefully puts it, ‘the

overall ratio of dependency has changed little since 1900’. This means, I think, that 68 years ago, there were, for every working man, just as many non-wage-earning mouths to be fed and backs to be clothed and heads to be sheltered as there are today. But 68 years ago most of the unemployed were too young to work. Now most of them are too old.

In brief, the old are a costly nuisance. And their nuisance value and their costliness is going to increase, unless we do something about it — and quickly. Well, I’ve suggested one solution. But there is another way. If we really decided to care, and to put as much energy into the solution of this problem as we now spend on (let’s say) bickering about wages and ‘who does what’, we could improve the happiness and well-being of our pensioners beyond belief. And at the same time, we could save ourselves a very great deal of money.

Of course, people do become more liable to a whole variety of degenerative diseases as they get older — or rather, these diseases tend to worsen and become increasingly disabling. Arthritis — arterial disease and heart disease — chronic bronchitis. All these are examples of extremely common afflictions which often cripple their victims progressively over periods of years before they finally kill. But there is one disability which ranks head and shoulders over all the others, and it is a disability which it is within our power to wipe off the board. This is the sickness of idleness. If you travel through China or India, you don’t find 30 per cent of the population lying around, more or less useless, in a state of chronic invalidism. The old people are working about the house, or, just as likely, in the fields. Admittedly, not so many Chinese and Indians live to be old, but those who do usually stay remarkably healthy and stout-hearted, until their span has truly run its course and the machine does stop working. And usually it does so pretty quietly and promptly, ‘one bell-like evening, when the May’s in bloom’.

We are going to accumulate an increasing population of old people in this country. We give them the medical care that stops them from dying before their time, and we see to it that nobody starves. We preserve the bodies of our citizens, but having nursed them along to old-age, we quite simply forget all about them, and are content to leave them to work out a tedious and debilitating retirement. This is absolutely ridiculous. It should be a major element of our national policy that we arrange for men and women (yes, and women) to go on working for so long as they wish. We should make sure that there are useful jobs available suited to every grade of physical capacity, short of complete infirmity.

We should immediately abolish the cruel system whereby a pensioner who does a modest job of work loses part of his pitiful allowance.

This article first appeared in the 17 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the war that changed us