Friday, October 19, 2007

Older People Working

If Nick Clegg is elected as leader of the Liberal Democrats, then Labour will have the oldest leader of the three political parties. It's almost a certainty that the other parties will begin taunts about "age" in an effort to injure Mr Brown in the way Ming Campbell was injured.

However, this presents an opportunity for Labour. Legislation against Age Discrimimation came into effect in December 2006. It's not just that the Labour government thinks it is wrong to discriminate against the old, the govt thinks that the survival of our welfare state depends on people working longer.

The old-age dependency ratio is the proportion of pensioners to people of working age. This ratio has been stable because though we have more pensioners, the number of people of working age increased sharply due to the baby boomers joining the workforce. These baby-boomers though are due to retire shortly, and there arn't enough young people to take their place in the workforce ( according to the ONS, the % of people under 16 has fallen from 26% in mid 1971 to 19% in mid-2006).

Another way of looking at it is the ageing index - this is the proportion of older people to children - this has jumped sharply from 64.0 in 1971 to 97.8 in 2006. This has big implications for the NHS. Most serious illness occurs in the last decade of life, which means the old are heavy users of the NHS. Children by contrast are light users - there's usually just the birth to worry about, and the coughs and colds of childhood illness are easily dealt with by GPs.

The obvious solution is to persuade the baby boomers to continue working (and paying taxes). Government has already announced that the state retirement age for men and women will be equalised at 65 from 2020, and has given people the right to ask their employers if they can work beyond 65, with an obligation on the employer to seriously consider the request. And age discrimination has been outlawed for those under 65.

But all of the above legislation comes to nought if society itself continues to discriminate against the old. If people start attacking the Prime Minister for being too old in his mere mid-fifties, then what chance does someone aged 60 have of getting work?

We in Britain need to have a serious discussion about our attitudes to age, and in particular about how much money discrimination against the old will cost. An ageing population means that the demand will outstrip our ability to increase spending on the NHS. To some extent we see this already - people ask "where has the money in the NHS gone" - answer, treating record numbers of people as the ageing index has jumped in the last 15 years. If we can't get older people to work longer, the alternative is a lower level of public services or a higher amount of taxation on those who are younger.

A general election would be a good time to have this debate. Let the opposition accuse the Prime Minister of being too old, so that we may have the opportunity of explaining to the electorate that the opposition's ageist attitude will be the ruin of Britain.

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