Are working class people to work until they die?

Raising the retirement age to 70 is fine for those who do desk jobs and live longer. But working class people tend to live less long - and the gap is widening.

Ellie Mae O'Hagan
9 December 2013

Last year it was revealed that 18 of the 29 cabinet ministers are millionaires with a combined wealth of £70m. Since then, the “millionaire government” line is so frequently-used, it’s almost a cliché. Rolling our collective eyes at our privileged, out-of-touch rulers has become such a national pastime that we almost forget what the implications of having such an elite government are.

And so it is that in the Autumn Statement of 2013, George Osborne felt moved to remind us. In his decision to raise the national retirement age to 70, the Chancellor forgot that 70 is a very different age to different people. For someone like David Cameron, whose only job outside of politics was a PR position at Carlton studios which paid him £90,000 at the tender age of 27, working until you’re 70 doesn’t seem like such a bad thing. It just means more working lunches, more posturing, more money. For someone like my mum, who has just been diagnosed with spinal arthritis after nearly 35 years as a nurse making beds and lifting patients, retiring at 70 means a decade of physical work with an agonising back condition. And in the great canon of physical work, my mum fares pretty well: she’s not a cleaner, a construction worker, or a firefighter. Unlike many working Britons, my mum’s job is rewarding, and she’s paid enough to survive. What does half a century of backbreaking, poorly-paid work look like to those who don’t have the opportunities to sail into that Cameron did?

Those who take part in physically demanding, low-paid work suffer a double punishment as a result of the increased pension age. Not only will their lives be more gruelling, they will end sooner. According to statistics released by the ONS last year, men can expect to live 9.2 years longer in the richest areas of Britain, with men in the poorest areas living 72.2 years – giving them a meagre 2.2 years of retirement following a lifetime of work. In some areas, the statistics are worse still - in the Calton area of Glasgow, an extreme example, male life expectancy was recorded in 2008 at 54.

According to Class publication, In Place of Fear, by Professor Danny Dorling, the UK is now more polarised in terms of health inequalities than before the Second World War, and the ONS is beginning to record falling life expectancy in some parts of the UK. In any case, the ONS estimated that the average ‘disability-free life expectancy’ (the time someone might hope to live without a long-standing health problem) is 69.4 in even the wealthiest areas. In other words, pretty much everybody can expect their health to start failing before they finish work – but for Britain’s poorest, ill health will start sooner, meaning up to a decade of ill health in work, and death will come soon after.

It may seem ostensibly fair to raise everybody’s retirement age to 70. But until the rest of society becomes equal too, this policy will disproportionately affect the poorest and most vulnerable people (and believe me, that’s a sentence I’m getting used to writing about government policy). But then, it seems fanciful to expect anything else from a cabinet of millionaires who have no understanding of how all-encompassing poverty can be – and for whom the very concept of work itself is optional.

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