It has always seemed to me a great pity that politicians and business leaders never seem to take the big and painful decisions at the right time – that is when times are good, rather than when times are bad and they are no longer in control of the process. Oh for a few farsighted statesmen rather than the short-termists we always seem to get, concerned only with their own immediate impact and survival.
And so it is now with the various measures being taken to deal with the issues surrounding a large and growing older population. The Budget just announced has come in for a lot of criticism, as they all do, in particular this time with regard to pensions and pensioners. But the concerns driving some of the current measures have been coming for decades and nobody was prepared to tackle them at the appropriate time. And so they have to be addressed now, at a time when any measure is going to be painful for someone, whether it is the young, the “squeezed middle” or the older population. In the end the pain will have to be shared around and we can only hope that such pain will, in the long run, be less here than in some other countries.
So let us stand back a moment and look at the bigger and longer term scenario, one that will quite definitely not go away of its own accord. There are certain things about matters related to demographics – they have the weight of numbers on their side and you can see them coming a long way off.
The first thing is that the population as a whole is living much longer than it used to. Living longer is generally a good thing, provided we can address the issues surrounding health, personal financial well-being, and a reason to get up in the morning. Living longer is something that will affect everyone, the young, the middle-aged and the elderly and so measures must be put in place to prepare everyone for later life, in an environment in which government funding is not a bottomless pit. After all, the money comes from us – we give with one hand we take with the other.
Therefore living longer (a good thing) implies working longer and/or saving more. And so state pension age will have to increase alongside increasing longevity, not only for financial reasons but for an individual’s feeling of value and worth and for the social interaction work brings. With this must come the ability to stay in work longer, in terms of health, the work environment itself and the right to continued employment.
And for those with some way to go to retirement, saving must be seen as a worthwhile venture. For some years there has been a powerful lobby suggesting there be an adequate universal pension for everyone, removing the excuse that saving is not worthwhile because with means testing later on you might as well spend it now rather than save it. This is being put in place. What we now need are some worthwhile savings mechanisms. They too, hopefully, are coming.
It is quite possible to argue about the fairness of the transition arrangements, for all sectors of the population not just pensioners, but directionally I believe that we are now beginning to see some progress.