Think Tanks

« Nick Faith crunches the numbers to explore the UKIP effect in marginal seats | Main | Rory Meakin: Three steps to fix our broken corporate tax system »

Andy Mayer: A longer working life means a healthier life – policymakers should take note

AMBy Andy Mayer of the Age Endeavour Fellowship

There is compelling evidence in a new report, Work Longer, Live Healthier: The relationship between economic activity, health and government policy, from the Institute of Economic Affairs and Age Endeavour Fellowship, that Sir Alex Ferguson may have more than one reason to regret his decision to stand down from Manchester United at a youthful 71 years of age.

Although he will feel good for a few months, in the long-term the impact on his health from not spending each Saturday shouting referees into favourable decisions will be negative. The same will be true for most of us – particularly if we choose early retirement.

For example, the research finds that the employment rate for men aged between 55-59 fell from over 90% to under 70% between 1968 and the late 1990s. From 80% to 50% for those between 60-64, and 30% to 15% for those between 65-69. This whilst both life expectancy and healthy life expectancy were rising.

Rather than enjoy an extended life of leisure, the research notes that retirement decreases the likelihood of being in ‘very good’ or ‘excellent’ health by about 40%, increases the probability of suffering clinical depression by about the same, and of a physical condition by about 60%.

Or, in other words, work keeps you focused, mentally nimble and perky. Retirement, not so much.

This is not an entirely new insight: mainstream opinion and policy has been moving against the idea of fixed, earlier retirement for much of the last decade, even before the financial crisis. But it has done so against dogged opposition from vested interests and the well-intended – often deeply concerned that reform would condemn the elderly to extra years of difficult drudgery; or that employers would have to cope with employees well past their prime, blocking opportunities for the young.

These arguments, however well-intended, are not valid. Most of us in the developed world don’t work in roles that require demanding physical labour. The minds of knowledge workers remain in peak condition far longer than our bodies. Focused work and projects are part of the mental exercise regime that keeps it that way. Older workers know stuff the young do not, can fix redundant systems, and are better connected. Their self-awareness is usually better, as is their sensitivity to the needs of others. They can be in less of a hurry, and can be more pleasant colleagues for that.

Working practices certainly need to continue to change: work need not stop at a fixed date, but could evolve into the kind of flexible part-time roles currently keeping employment levels high. High-fliers at the top of the corporate ladder might slide down gently rather than fall off, passing on skills and knowledge as they slow down. Some jobs need not slow down at all. Workplace access to care and treatment for the common complaints of later life needs the same kind of thought as those for youth. Older part-time workers are a huge resource and opportunity for the voluntary sector.

Whether deliberately or through well-intended surrender to interest groups, successive Governments have incentivised the longest lived and healthiest generation in human history to retire sooner and work less. In doing so they have not only undermined the health of the economy, but also the vitality of those they sought to help. This was an error. It can be reversed.

And much of the change required is not about new institutions, schemes or laws, but a change of attitude, supported by unbundling bad laws.

Policymakers then should have more confidence to speed up the removal of barriers to work in pensions, benefits and employment regulations. Businesses that encourage and utilise older workers should be celebrated, their best schemes copied. Public sector unions should be fighting to keep their members employed and employable not for the dubious special privilege of dying younger with worse health than private sector workers.

Above all, those reaching their sixties should be enabled to make more informed choices about what they want, and the consequences of giving up the work they love.


You must be logged in using Intense Debate, Wordpress, Twitter or Facebook to comment.