The country would grind to a halt if retirees did nothing for a day. We must show the coalition that pensions are about people
The coalition’s war on pensions continues. The latest assault is on the provision for the retirement of public sector employees – who are going to have to pay more to get (probably) less, and later. And not because their pensions funds are financially unsustainable (they’re not) but because the pensions on offer just seem too decent, too respectful, in a country where such sentiments are now a luxury. No one else gets a well-managed, reliable employee pension scheme any more, so why should doctors or teachers?
And the war goes wider. There’s talk of vicious cuts to the tax relief on private pensions contributions (vigorously denied, for now, but we shall see) and while the plans for the flat weekly state pension of £140 look enlightened, how long will we have to live before we get the first cheque? Sixty-six (the retirement age in 2020) is just the start of a relentless creep upwards. Frank Field MP, with his depressing willingness to think the unthinkable, has mooted a state retirement age, very soon, of 74.
Can the war be stopped? Not, surely, by the threatened public sector strikes. As a country, we’ve travelled so far from the idea that a secure retirement is a citizen’s right, that no number of angry nurses on Whitehall will shift the argument. Only one group can remind us why we all chip in to pay each other’s pensions. Retirees themselves.
I’m calling a pensioners’ strike.
“Hang on, but pensioners don’t work, do they?” And that’s the nub of the problem. Because that pervasive attitude, that retirees don’t “work” or “add value”, and are a “burden” on the productive population – that idea needs squashing, flat. In an act of solidarity with their juniors – and a demand for a bit of bleedin’ respect – Britain’s retirees should all, just for one day, do what everyone assumes they do – sit around watching Cash in the Attic, maybe play a spot of golf, have a nap … and do absolutely nothing else. And the country would grind to a standstill.
Let’s have the strike in the school holidays, shall we? Because seniors are the largest childcare sector in the UK – providing more hours of care than nurseries, nannies or playgroups, allowing hundreds of thousands of parents to go to work. The value of retirees’ grand-childcare is estimated at £2.6bn a year. On pensioners’ strike day, the economy would stall so heavily, George Osborne could use it as an excuse for his next growth figures. Then you have the 1.5 million people over the age of 60 in the UK who currently “work” as carers for ailing spouses, siblings and children. And these days, a significant proportion of retirees are actually still managing, sourcing or providing the care for their own parents.
Finally, a mere 4.9 million people over the age of 65 are currently regularly volunteering or participating in their local civic life. On strike day the country’s museums, galleries, stately homes, community bus services, meals on wheels services, literacy programmes, adult education services and so much more would have to be shut down, denied the grey army that keeps them alive. As my grandmother perfectly puts it: “David Cameron goes on about the ‘big society’ because he doesn’t know any old people. We’ve built it already.”
Ironically, old age advocacy charities are desperately trying to promote increased public spending on pensions in developing countries, arguing that pensions are an investment in people at the heart of their families and communities, whose wellbeing thus promotes wider wellbeing. I recently met Lucy Wambui, a 70-year-old raising 10 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren in the slums of Nairobi, and funding all their education through her chip stall and the small pension the charity Help Age International was paying her. Was she a burden on society? Was she hell.
And that’s how we should start viewing pensions – not as an outlay, an entry in the national liabilities column, but as an investment in people who haven’t stopped making a massive contribution to our lives. And maybe then, after the great grey strike of 2011, we can start a genuinely collaborative conversation about how the generations need to support and depend upon one another, in a humane and caring future.
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