A few decades ago before I went to university I worked in a psychiatric hospital as a nursing assistant, keeping the mostly geriatric patients clean and fed, getting them up and putting them to bed, talking to them when we had time. I formed a good relationship with the head of nursing at the hospital, Marianne Jahn, and not long before I had to leave for college we’d stopped to chat in a corridor. Most of the patients in the hospital didn’t really have psychiatric problems, but were old and frail enough to need full time nursing and there was nowhere else for them to go. Marianne gestured at the wards and said in her German accent, (I paraphrase)
“You know this problem is only going to get worse. We’re sitting on a demographic timebomb. We have an ageing population, but pensions depend on those in work funding the retired. If you have more people retired than in work, what will happen? But the government is never going to think about it.”
She was right, and it’s only now that governments are having to pay at least some attention to the problem (there have been mavericks like Frank Field who was safely contained by putting him on an enquiry, duly buried without further action). It highlights a problem with democracy, that it’s hard for governments to inflict present pain for the sake of an uncertain (but likely) future, because there are really no votes in it. It’s also why precious little has been done about the threat of global warming.
The root of the pension problem is not in birth rates, but in longer life spans. Pensions traditionally worked on the assumption that most people would not live more than about ten years beyond their retirement at 65. Clearly that has changed, and not only are we living longer, but most are healthier for longer. Governments have finally responded by pushing the retirement age up a little, though I suspect they will still have to do more.
The implications go far beyond the economics of pensions.
I was freelance for most of the time when my own children were growing up, and so was lucky enough to play a very active role in their young lives. My wife at the time had decided she wanted to stop work and focus on the children, and she has since encountered all the usual problems surrounding an interrupted career, to the point where she felt she could only apply for much more modest admin jobs than the management development work she’d been doing before she had children.
In my own job I could see around me a prevailing managerial attitude (among men and women) that it was stupid to invest too much in women in their late 20s, because the expectation was that they would stop to have children, and not return.
I was prompted to think of all this again because the UKIP leader Nigel Farage has been sounding off about women working in the City of London (where he had a successful career before politics). He argued that if you had a career break you would lose the allegiance of the clients that made you valuable, and so it was reasonable for City firms to value women less. When asked if anything could or should be done about this Farage replied “I can’t change biology.”
We’ve been scratching around the surface of this problem, tinkering with ideas about paternal leave and so on. The problem, pace Farage, is not biology, but the fact that the social and economic burdens of having and raising children, which are important to society as a whole, are unfairly distributed, with the disbenefits particularly loaded against women. The heart of the problem then is with our expectations of what a successful working life should be like, and it’s here that it’s helpful to consider the problem alongside issues raised by an ageing population.
We need to look at more than the retirement age. We need to consider what extending working life could mean for established ideas about careers. Right now, there’s a tacit assumption that people will hit their career peak between the ages of 30 and 50 (or thereabouts). This is of course the period when they are also most likely to have dependent children, and if you put these factors together it’s no surprise that women usually defer to the earning potential of men, because pay still favours men.
We should be challenging all these assumptions. Wouldn’t it be more rational, if we are expecting people to work from 50 to 70 or beyond, to see this later phase as the potential career peak, the point where a lifetime’s experience could be better brought to bear? Wouldn’t it be more rational to take the pressure off that 30-50 period, with a default expectation that both parents would be dividing their time more determinedly between work and childcare, and those who don’t have children, far from resenting the time away given to parents throughout that period, should be encouraged to see it as their share in the broader responsibility of bringing the next generation into this world?
It becomes clear in the light that these issues have very little to do with biology, and everything to do with cultural expectations, which can and must be changed.
Clearly there are questions here about money, about how salaries could be scaled to meet the conflicting demands of raising children while putting in fewer hours in the workplace. But these questions need to be part of a broader discussion, since it’s also clear that the current economics of a working life are not viable either.
There are other difficult questions about manual jobs, which may not be possible for people in their 60s, but then part of this restructuring will entail being more open to people changing their work in their 50s, instead of throwing them on the scrapheap if they happen to lose their jobs at that age, as happens too often now. It also means that the experience of parenthood might itself be seen as an asset to bring back to your work: it can teach you quite a lot about yourself and other people.
Business is probably not going to lead the way here because few businesses could act unilaterally to change their costs in the ways that would be necessary. We will probably need legislation to level the playing fields, but there will be direct benefits to business too, not least through having a more mature and productive labour pool, better capable of adding value to work in the face of global competition.