We are entering the age of no retirement. The journey into that chilling reality is not a long one: the first generation who will experience it are now in their 40s and 50s. They grew up assuming they could expect the kind of retirement their parents enjoyed – stopping work in their mid-60s on a generous income, with time and good health enough to fulfil long-held dreams. For them, it may already be too late to make the changes necessary to retire at all.
In 2010, British women got their state pension at 60 and men got theirs at 65. By October 2020, both sexes will have to wait until they are 66. By 2028, the age will rise again, to 67. And the creep will continue. By the early 2060s, people will still be working in their 70s, but according to research, we will all need to keep working into our 80s if we want to enjoy the same standard of retirement as our parents.
This is what a world without retirement looks like. Workers will be unable to down tools, even when they can barely hold them with hands gnarled by age-related arthritis. The raising of the state retirement age will create a new social inequality. Those living in areas in which the average life expectancy is lower than the state retirement age (south-east England has the highest average life expectancy, Scotland the lowest) will subsidise those better off by dying before they can claim the pension they have contributed to throughout their lives. In other words, wealthier people become beneficiaries of what remains of the welfare state.
Retirement is likely to be sustained in recognisable form in the short and medium term. Looming on the horizon, however, is a complete dismantling of this safety net.
For those of pensionable age who cannot afford to retire, but cannot continue working – because of poor health, or ageing parents who need care, or because potential employers would rather hire younger workers – the great progress Britain has made in tackling poverty among the elderly over the last two decades will be reversed. This group is liable to suffer the sort of widespread poverty not seen in Britain for 30 to 40 years.
Many now in their 20s will be unable to save throughout their youth and middle age because of increasingly casualised employment, student debt and rising property prices. By the time they are old, members of this new generation of poor pensioners are liable to be, on average, far worse off than the average poor pensioner today.
A series of factors has contributed to this situation: increased life expectancy, woeful pension planning by successive governments, the end of the final-salary pension scheme (in which people got two-thirds of their final salary as a pension) and our own failure to save.
For two months, as part of an experiment by the Guardian in collaborative reporting, I have been investigating what retirement looks like today – and what it might look like for the next wave of retirees, their children and grandchildren. The evidence reveals a sinkhole beneath the state’s provision of pensions. Under the weight of our vastly increased longevity, retirement – one of our most cherished institutions – is in danger of collapsing into it.
Many of those contemplating retirement are alarmed by the new landscape. A 62-year-old woman, who is for the first time in her life struggling to pay her mortgage (and wishes to remain anonymous), told me: “I am more stressed now than I was in my 30s. I lived on a very tight budget then, but I was young and could cope emotionally. I don’t mean to sound bitter, but I never thought I would feel this scared of the future at my age. I’m not remotely materialistic and have never wanted a fancy lifestyle. But not knowing if I will be without a home in the next few months is a very scary place to be.”
And it is not just the older generation who fear old age. Adam Palfrey is 30, with three children and a disabled wife who cannot work. “I must confess, I am absolutely terrified of retirement,” he told me. “I have nothing stashed away. Savings are out of the question. I only just earn enough that, with housing benefit, disability living allowance and tax credits, I manage to keep our heads above water. I work every hour I can just to keep things afloat. There’s no way I could keep this up aged 70-plus, just so that my partner and I can live a basic life. As for my three children … God knows. I can scarcely bring myself to think about it.”