Published:


AMBy Andy
Mayer of the Age Endeavour Fellowship

There is
compelling evidence in a new report, Work Longer, Live Healthier: The
relationship between economic activity, health and government policy
,

from the Institute of Economic Affairs and Age Endeavour Fellowship, that Sir
Alex Ferguson may have more than one reason to regret his decision to stand
down from Manchester United at a youthful 71 years of age.

Although
he will feel good for a few months, in the long-term the impact on his health
from not spending each Saturday shouting referees into favourable decisions
will be negative. The same will be true for most of us – particularly if we
choose early retirement.

For
example, the research finds that the employment rate for men aged between 55-59
fell from over 90% to under 70% between 1968 and the late 1990s. From 80% to
50% for those between 60-64, and 30% to 15% for those between 65-69. This
whilst both life expectancy and healthy life expectancy were rising.


Rather
than enjoy an extended life of leisure, the research notes that retirement
decreases the likelihood of being in ‘very good’ or ‘excellent’ health by about
40%, increases the probability of suffering clinical depression by about the
same, and of a physical condition by about 60%.

Or, in
other words, work keeps you focused, mentally nimble and perky. Retirement, not
so much.

This is
not an entirely new insight: mainstream opinion and policy has been moving
against the idea of fixed, earlier retirement for much of the last decade, even
before the financial crisis. But it has done so against dogged opposition from
vested interests and the well-intended – often deeply concerned that reform
would condemn the elderly to extra years of difficult drudgery; or that
employers would have to cope with employees well past their prime, blocking
opportunities for the young.

These
arguments, however well-intended, are not valid. Most of us in the developed
world don’t work in roles that require demanding physical labour. The minds of
knowledge workers remain in peak condition far longer than our bodies. Focused
work and projects are part of the mental exercise regime that keeps it that
way. Older workers know stuff the young do not, can fix redundant systems, and
are better connected. Their self-awareness is usually better, as is their
sensitivity to the needs of others. They can be in less of a hurry, and can be
more pleasant colleagues for that.

Working
practices certainly need to continue to change: work need not stop at a fixed
date, but could evolve into the kind of flexible part-time roles currently
keeping employment levels high. High-fliers at the top of the corporate ladder
might slide down gently rather than fall off, passing on skills and knowledge
as they slow down. Some jobs need not slow down at all. Workplace access to
care and treatment for the common complaints of later life needs the same kind
of thought as those for youth. Older part-time workers are a huge resource and
opportunity for the voluntary sector.

Whether
deliberately or through well-intended surrender to interest groups, successive
Governments have incentivised the longest lived and healthiest generation in
human history to retire sooner and work less. In doing so they have not only
undermined the health of the economy, but also the vitality of those they
sought to help. This was an error. It can be reversed.

And much
of the change required is not about new institutions, schemes or laws, but a
change of attitude, supported by unbundling bad laws.

Policymakers
then should have more confidence to speed up the removal of barriers to work in
pensions, benefits and employment regulations. Businesses that encourage and
utilise older workers should be celebrated, their best schemes copied. Public
sector unions should be fighting to keep their members employed and employable
not for the dubious special privilege of dying younger with worse health than
private sector workers.

Above all,
those reaching their sixties should be enabled to make more informed choices
about what they want, and the consequences of giving up the work they love.

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