Good news – on average, we’re all living longer and we’re staying fit and healthy for longer too. Bad news – as we are all living longer, we’ll have to retire later and the state pension age is rising for both men and women. If you work in the private sector, you’ll probably be paying more for a poorer pension and if you work in the public sector, you’ll have to pay more for longer and get a poorer pension on retirement. Oh, and if you need to be housed and cared for in your old age, then the state can’t afford that either. In the UK, the 2011 Dilnot Report (The Commission on Funding of Care and Support) suggests we should take out insurance or release equity from our homes and pensions to pay for long-term care. Old age in the twenty-first century ain’t what it used to be.
Of course, the 2008 financial crisis and fragile recovery is impacting on welfare provision and has changed the entire climate within which discussions on ‘affordability’ are taking place. Some politicians and campaigners no doubt see this as the perfect moment to slim down the welfare state under the cover of prudent planning. Is the European model of the welfare state, however nationally interpreted and implemented, coming to an end? In the ‘age of austerity’ amid public sector cuts and a rethinking of welfare, we do seem to be moving inexorably away from universal benefits and ‘cradle to grave’ support. In 40 years’ time, we may well look back on the welfare state as a relatively short, 60-year experiment that was just not sustainable over the long term. British Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, will probably not be repeating Harold Macmillan’s 1957 comment, in the midst of rising post-war production and incomes: ‘Indeed, let us be frank about it, most of our people have never had it so good.’
However, there is more going on here than just economics. Sociologically, the kind of changes being proposed on the standard retirement age, pension provision, welfare benefits and public spending cuts, have the potential to re-shape the life-course. Sociologists prefer the concept of life-course to those of the life-cycle or life-span, both of which imply a series of universal biological stages. The only really fixed biological stages for most human beings are birth, life and death, but using these to try and make sense of human life doesn’t get us very far. The concept of the life-course is less deterministic, based on socio-cultural circumstances in different societies, which produce different life-course stages and timings, often for different social groups. (See, for example, the Centre for Research on Ageing at Southampton.)
One of the simplest examples is the creation of ‘teen-age’ and the teenager in the 1950s and ’60s, the result of rising incomes, consumer culture and pop music, which combined to put more money in the pockets of young people recently freed from National Service and the loosening of frugal attitudes associated with rationing. More disposable income was spent on fashionable clothes, records and consumer goods as a teenage market developed and solidified. Today of course, ‘teen-age’ appears as a natural life-cycle stage that has always and everywhere been the same. But it hasn’t. It is, in large measure, the social creation of particular types of society.
Similarly, childhood has undergone some quite significant shifts over time. My own grandmother, for example, went out to work aged 12 in semi-residential domestic service, walking 4 miles each way from home and back to do so. No ‘education, education, education’ policy back then. Spare the violins though, she said she enjoyed it. Today, this is widely seen in the developed countries as a form of child exploitation and abuse, which only carries on in developing countries and must be stamped out. Extending compulsory schooling to all, lengthening the number of years in school, both at the outset and the end, have helped transform what we think ‘childhood’ is and how ‘children’ should be treated.
Old age is no different, though sociological research hasn’t really caught up in this area yet. I suspect it is about to do so. When are we ‘old’ these days? A conventional starting point has been state pensionable age (in the UK that’s 60 for women, 65 for men). But the government plans to increase the pension age for women to 65 by 2018 – bringing equality with men – by 2020 to raise it again to 66 for all, before another rise to 68 by 2038. Beyond that, 70 or even higher is likely. At the same time, the compulsory retirement age of 65 is to be scrapped, allowing workers to stay on if they wish.
There is a logic to this process. After the Second World War when the pension age was set at 65, life expectancy was just 66.4 for men and 72.5 for women in the UK. In England in 2010, this had risen to 77 and 82 respectively and estimates suggest that by 2056 it will be 84 and 89. With no change, state pensions would be paid for many more years, cost far more and, some say, will be unaffordable. Perhaps we should see these shifts as a belated catching-up with reality? In 2006, Denmark raised the pension age from 65 to 67 years, and from 2025 pension age will be indexed to life expectancy. Italy and Greece also plan the same linkage by 2015 and 2020 respectively.
It is always easier to spot major social changes with hindsight, but much more difficult while they’re in process. But this is exactly what we’re witnessing at present: a radical change to the meaning of ‘old age’ as a life-course stage, which is well underway. Social gerontologists already make a distinction between the early or ‘young’ old (65-74), the ‘middle old’ (75-84) and the ‘old old’ (85 onwards). As the pension age shifts, no doubt these categories will too. Abolition of the compulsory retirement age should also undermine ideas of generational unfairness for younger workers paying for older people’s pensions and care. But there will be some strange consequences too. Maybe those who are able and willing to work into their mid-70s will frown on their 68-year-old neighbours who choose to retire? 68-year-old ‘spongers’ anyone?
Chapter 8 ‘The Life-Course’ is the logical place to begin, especially pp. 295-320. Welfare states are included in Chapter 12 ‘Poverty, Social Exclusion and Welfare’, pp. 507-17 and the social significance of work is covered on pp. 921-32.
Philip W. Sutton
For more on the life-course, you may be interested to take a look at Lorraine Green’s Understanding the Life Course whichcombines the important insights sociology and psychology have to bring to the study of the life course, particularly illustrating their relevance to welfare.