June 12, 2024

The retirement age creeps up in jerky increments. By 2026, it’ll be 67; from 2044, it’s expected to rise to 68. But do we know that for sure? Or will it be more like Rishi Sunak’s plan to ban smoking, and get a year further off as every year passes, until the entire concept of retirement isn’t even a recollection, just a thing that used to look cool in 40s films? The International Longevity Centre produced a report this week to say that the age would definitely need to go up to 71 for those born after 1970, so yup, this is sounding more and more like “never”.

It’s one of the world’s most fracturing discussions, retirement, unless you’re French, in which case you’ll be able to unite instantly around the proposition “Macron, go screw yourself”. Well-paid people who genuinely enjoy financial planning get a thrill from plotting it, their personal qualities iterated in their pleasant imagined future, and they’re picturing themselves wintering in warmer climates, wearing neckerchiefs. This makes them entirely alien to well-paid people who hate financial planning, and none of these people are having a conversation remotely like those whose work is badly paid. They might enjoy it, they might not, it might be physically too arduous to continue to do into your 70s, it might not, but when work gives you no fiscal headroom, as Jeremy Hunt would call it, the idea of needing to do it for ever is more of a swindle. Who’s paying for today’s retirement, if not the people who would retire tomorrow, except they won’t be able to?

Further splintering occurs between people who hang a lot of their identity on their work, and those who see work mainly as quashing the self, people who love having colleagues and, well, the other kind. From this mess of contradictory emotions, it’s hard to muster a full-throated, synchronised response to the idea of “work till you drop”. We could think seriously about organising the retirement age by sector, so that at the very least manual workers could stop sooner; or we could get a lot more French, and say if 71 doesn’t work for one of us, it doesn’t work for any of us. But we can’t just leave it at “meh”.

  • Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist

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