Let’s abolish retirement

Retirement is not as old as you think. According to the Bible, God expelled Adam from Paradise with the terrible words: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground.” And that’s more or less how it was until about a hundred years ago. Most people worked till they died. Pensions in the UK date from 1908, and the cost of the first pension schemes was tiny, as the retirement age of 70 was 20 years beyond average life expectancy. Retirement was for heaven – if one had lived a virtuous life.

Work has remained central to our existence, despite the lengthening gap between work and death we call retirement. We are expected to work till our sixties and somehow make the best of the dead years to follow. This is a problem for both finance and occupation. Lord Wei wants to fill up retirement with “work, leisure, and service”. His National Retirement Service, proposed in a report published yesterday, would help retirees to “embrace a concept of retirement that is more active, economically and socially … saving taxpayers money and generating health and wealth for all generations”.

In my view this is to get it the wrong way round. We shouldn’t be aiming to extend the domain of work into old age, but to extend the domain of non-work into young age – that is, to abolish the concept of retirement altogether. A rich society no longer has the need to work its labour force into the grave. It already has “enough”.

In his futuristic essay “Economic possibilities for our grandchildren”, published in 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes thought that by now, we would not need to work more than a 15-hour week to secure a standard of life four or five times higher than in 1930.

Keynes’s reasonable expectation was that leisure would increasingly oust work from the centre of our lives. The rich never had to work for a living; Keynes thought that as societies got richer, this exemption from toil would spread to more and more people. Leisure would increasingly become the meaningful core of life; and work, in the sense of working for a living, would increasingly become a residual.

This line of thought has two implications. The first is that work and leisure should be spread much more seamlessly across life. The fact that work is much less physically demanding than it used to be makes this possible. There will be no need for the elderly (except for the very old and infirm) to “retire” from a three-hour-a-day work week; on the other hand, there will be no need for younger workers to work more than three hours a day. That is, they will be “retiring” from their work much earlier in their working lives. One of the worst things about dividing life into work and retirement is that it makes many of the elderly unsuited for the leisure that is so suddenly thrust on them when they reach the “retirement age”.

The second implication is that we should aim for a much more equal distribution of wealth and income. The premise of the argument is that societies as a whole – and so far this applies only to western societies – are rich enough to afford all their citizens the material prerequisites of a good life. But the rich and super-rich have raced ahead from everyone else; and there are 13 million households, or 21% of the population, who live below the officially designated poverty line. This group cannot reasonably be expected to trade income for leisure. They must first have more income.

How to bring about those more equal conditions of life needed to realise the promise of leisure for all is the main social challenge facing advanced capitalist countries. The abolition of the concept of retirement, with “special needs” to be attended to by a retirement agency, would be a helpful first step.