There was a time when living longer was considered to be a desirable goal, and rising life expectancy was regarded as a metric of social progress. In those not so distant times, ‘developed’ capitalist societies and already existing socialist societies alike assumed that work was a preparation for an old age in which you would be able to dedicate yourself to a life of leisure while you were still young and healthy enough to enjoy it and make the most of it.
According to this social contract, the pensioned retiree would be able to live – for a few years at least – the way Marx and Engels once imagined that everyone would live in a future communist society, liberated from the world of alienated labour and able ” to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner…without every becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic. ”
It now appears that our rulers have decided that these arrangements are no longer possible or desirable, and that living longer is not good for society after all. On the contrary it seems that rising life expectancy is problematic and that we would be better off dying younger. Because the Etonians and the gimlet eyed pointy heads entrusted with managing and paring down our expectations of the future in the name of austerity are worried that there will soon be too many old people and not enough younger workers.
They tell us that the NHS wasn’t designed to cope with people living this long; that young workers (who presumably will never get old themselves) shouldn’t be expected to fund the healthcare and leisure of the elderly; that we just can’t afford it dontchaknow etc, etc.
Well we know we can’t afford a lot of things these days that were once considered hallmarks of a civilised and humane society, so it’s only natural that our leaders should have reached the conclusion that we can’t afford the elderly. No one can be surprised that that foundation stone of the social contract, the state pension, is being called into question, at least for millennials and their successors, by the blue sky thinkers and visionaries we were daft enough to place in positions of power over us.
In the 1970s sci fi classic Soylent Green, the elderly check into voluntary euthanasia clinics, where they can watch photographs of landscapes and mountains accompanied by soaring classical music while they die from a slow-acting lethal injection. This possibility isn’t on the table – yet. Instead our rulers are looking at a different kind of future.
Last week, British newspapers were floating the possibility that young adults coming into the jobs market may be forced to work till they are 75 or even 81 before they get their pensions. These predictions emanated from a titled pointy head named John Cridland, the former CBI chief who has been appointed head of the government’s new pensions review, to look into whether pensions are ‘affordable in the long term.’
With this government the answer will almost certainly be in the negative. So we may soon be forced to contemplate an incredible and absurd future in which today’s young adults will be expected to work until they are 75 or 81 before you are finally able to settle down to a life of leisure. Personally this doesn’t bother me. I love the work I do and don’t want to retire. On the contrary, I want to be healthy enough to keep writing until the end the Reaper scythes me down, and there are other professions that feel the same way.
But there are a hell of a lot that don’t, because some jobs simply don’t offer that level of satisfaction. No one says you should have to retire at 60 or 65, but even those who would like to be working into their 70s and 80s may not be able to, because old age can be harsh and difficult terrain to navigate your way through, and everything depends on having the mental and physical faculties to be able to live independently and with dignity, let alone work.
And there are many jobs in which it is simply ridiculous to expect people to work for so long. There won’t be many teachers who can survive in a classroom at the age of 81, for example, and there won’t be many pupils who want to be taught by them. All this should be obvious to the brain dead, but in an era in which a small and unimaginably wealthy elite believes that it has carte blanche to strip away everything that is left of the common good in the name of austerity, and which looks at every single aspect of society through the prism of ‘affordability’.it is depressingly predictable that such lunatic proposals should even be mooted.
In theory we all ought to be working less hours and less years, not more. We ought to be thinking about reducing working hours and sharing work around. Technology has made that future possible. If people are living longer than we should celebrate that fact and think creatively of ways to adapt and prepare for it.
Instead, we are being dragged by the nose from a dystopian present to an even more dystopian future, by politicians with very little imagination, wisdom or even common sense, who really are demanding the impossible, and not in a good way. In this future you will work for fifty to sixty years, until you receive your pension, by which time you won’t have much time to do anything with it except pay for a fancy funeral.
It’s nonsense, and brutal nonsense at that, and it’s yet another measure of our steep descent into collective inhumanity and stupidity under this government from hell that we should even be considering such a possibility.
And all of us, young and old, should do everything we can to make sure that these proposals get kicked deep into the long grass, where no one can ever find them.