The first month of 2016 was a sombre one, featuring the deaths of the musical chameleon and legend that is David Bowie and everybody’s favourite film bad guy, Alan Rickman, both aged 69 and both taken by the cruelty of cancer.
In the outpouring of grief that followed their passing, it was interesting that 69 was considered no age, ‘too young’ to die. They sadly did not make the old ‘three score years and 10’ adage from the Bible; nowadays we expect a far greater innings than that.
The national media is often full of centenarians giving their tips for a long life and the pensions industry is certainly used to reading report after report about increasing longevity. Calls to increase the state pension age are based upon this mountain of evidence, with concerns that the state funding a possible 30 years in retirement for individuals is unsustainable.
In these discussions I often hear the need for the state pension age to quickly rise to 70. I find it interesting that neither Bowie nor Rickman would have made it into retirement if the state pension age was now 70 as some would like, despite having the luxury of being in the top tier of earners in the country.
It serves as a reminder to me of how difficult the issue of longevity and retirement is. In discussions, we talk of the genuine need to increase the state pension age and how lower socio-economic groups may be more likely to ‘suffer’ as a result of any change. This seems broadly true, but the further these groups are broken down, particularly to personal circumstances, the more differences in impact are likely to be seen, making harder to achieve ‘fairness’ for all regions, job types and genders when changing the state pension age.
This fairness is a current issue in the pensions news. Recently, the House of Common’s delayed the decision to debate the increase to women’s state pension age, the rapid increase of which has been accused of being discriminatory to the women affected, who, unlike men, had only a few years to prepare for the change. However, just this week, Prime Minister David Cameron suggested the introduction of the single-tier state pension system at £155 per week will help to end gender discrimination.
January has also seen the Work and Pensions Select Committee launch a new inquiry on ‘intergenerational fairness’, looking at whether policies such as the triple-lock on pensions have caused disparity between generations.
Discussions around intergenerational fairness need to extend beyond retirement to the workplace. Older people need to be treated fairly at work and valued for the individual skills they can bring, especially as they are increasingly likely to remain as part of the workforce in later life.
Despite being past the state pension age, Bowie and Rickman were both still hard at work. Indeed, just days prior to his death, Bowie released the album Blackstar, which was well received upon its release. The outpouring of grief over both these men’s deaths was not just a case of paying due respect to their past achievements, their fans were still hungry for more. Their age was of no relevance to their output; quality is ageless.
Neither Bowie nor Rickman had slunk away to a quiet retirement. They were representations of the world we live in today, where people in their 60s or 70s or older are no longer considered too old to be of use to society. The plus side to the baby boomers getting older is seeing those stars that shook the world in their younger days continuing to inspire and be role models for all generations.
I recently saw the often-considered master of comedy, Billy Connolly, perform on stage. Aged 73, dealing with Parkinson’s disease and having just overcome prostate cancer, he was as sharp and funny as ever. The crowd at the show was a broad range of ages – from those who still have to show ID at bars to those who show their bus pass for free travel. For them all, funny is funny, there is no ‘best before’ date on those that deliver the jokes.
So, there is at least a degree of ‘age-blindness’ from the consumers of the entertainment industry (this may not be the case within the entertainment industry, if the debates about quality roles on film and TV for older people and the sacking of older female newsreaders is anything to go by, but that’s a discussion for another day).
However, the next step is for older people’s output to be respected in all workplaces. Another, now ageing, legend, Robert De Niro (aged 72) explored this issue in his recent film The Intern. For those of you despairing that De Niro’s choice of roles in his old age is ‘destroying his legacy’ may in particular find the film eye opening.
The film (and arguably, De Niro in his own life) challenges the notion that older people should quietly shrink away from work, even life, and that they are not open to trying new things. Instead, with De Niro as an older intern in the film, it highlights the experience and wisdom older people can bring to a workplace, their dedication to adapt and learn new skills, and most importantly of all, the capacity for different generations to learn and benefit from each other, within work and beyond.
Older workers respected for the experience they bring, and different generations valuing the lessons each provide for the other? Now that’s a Hollywood story I would like to see come true.