I remember as a child, age was completely different to how we experience it now. Men in their 50s were succumbing in droves to industrial diseases and of course endemic smoking and drinking behaviour. To achieve the retirement age of 65, one really was “knocking on a bit” and 70 was by definition “old”.
These days, we’ve increased the retirement age to 66 moving to 67 in a few years’ time and it is foreseeable within a generation that we will see the retirement age at 70, the age at which one would originally attract a pension of five shillings in the earliest days of welfare when the first pensions were introduced in 1909 by Lloyd George.
With more than 11 million people of pensionable age and this figure set to increase to 14 million in just six short years, the whole nature of how we view aging and indeed retirement is changing.
Better healthcare and public awareness, improvements in nutrition and living standards mean that we get approximately five extra hours per day added onto our life expectancy for each day lived. Of course this is a statistical phenomenon and we all know of the unfortunate people through accident and illness succumb way before their years but the trend is inevitably upwards. Buckingham Palace has now created an industrial scale approach to sending letters to centenarians where once upon a time it was a periodic event.
So what does this mean to our society and culture?
Without doubt, people will be spending significant numbers of years in retirement or more likely in semi-retirement. Increasing cohorts of people have resolved simply not to give up work but perhaps work a shorter week and take advantage of employers offering “retirement and return packages”. This is good to retain experience and organisational memory for companies, it is also good for the individual providing extra income in retirement which will now be prolonged and with increasing cohorts of people suffering from dementia, cognitive stretches and other stimulation that can mitigate the effects of these and many physical conditions.
Age brings with it the understandable levels of high maintenance that go with bodies that have given good service and disability of one form or another will increasingly become the norm with workplace, public and other facilities ever increasing and reflecting that in their lay out, construction and policies. We all know that there is a concomitant demand upon the NHS facilities as our population ages and far greater self-care with the use of technology will have to feature if future services are to cope with the demand.
Perhaps most of all, social attitudes will have to change and markets will have to adapt. In politics we already know about the “grey vote” as baby boomers increasingly place demands upon our political masters this will have to be balanced against the needs of the young which are not necessarily well served by people extending their working lives beyond traditional retirement ages.
We will also have to avoid the need to generalise about age. The 65-year-old building working, may well be long past the ability to retain a job such as this, compared with the office worker working in halcyon conditions, and so post-retirement work may require adaptation and migration within activities. Just walk round in a branch of B&Q and see how many people, having exited the building trade, now work in retail and are in the mature zone!
We know that 80% of the wealth in this country is possessed by people over 50 years. An irony of design and other activities is that they typically encompass people who are far younger than that and so the whole nature of markets and how marketing is undertaken will need radical review and need reality testing. As pension funds are liberated, it will be more than Lamborghinis on sale and lucrative market opportunities will present along with stark ethical challenges as people attempt to express a lifestyle in maturity whilst at the same time managing resources that have been built up over a lifetime and range from the modest pension to the complex managed funds of the mega rich in seniority.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is our need to look at social attitudes. Western cultures have typically vilified old age and have not necessarily embraced until recently the eastern values of increasing knowledge, wisdom, skill and personal completion. We know from workplace studies that older workers often emulate their younger peers in productivity not borne of strength and vigour, but of cognitive development, skill, balanced lifestyles and appropriate self-care and decent concentration spans. There is much to be said for the mature workforce.
Equally, we have to bear in mind our younger members of the community, in terms of their opportunities for job offerings and career tracks that will not be as meteoric as before as the life cycle has elongated. Greater economic burdens are borne in terms of education, access to housing etc, and the life stage developments of older cohorts in the community are slowed for our young as they face increasing economic burdens that must be met across what will be a long and challenging life, where lifelong learning and multifarious debts have become the norm.
In all of this, ageism, the potential to discriminate against the young or the older members of our society stands as a key challenge for all of us to maintain an awareness. We neither want the exclusionary approaches of closed communities of practice of elder workers nor do we want elder workers excluded by the policies of some that unashamedly but cleverly target the young.
Society is changing, and we must carry our sense of social justice and fairness for all with us as our compass on the journey.
David Cliff is Managing Director of Gedanken and Chairman of the Institute of Directors’ Northern Sector Group.