Should There be an Age When Retirement is Compulsory?

Should there be a compulsory age that workers are forced to retire?

Featured February 10 Words by Ian Wylie And Rosie Carr
ILLUSTRATION © ALEX GREEN/FOLIOART.CO.UK
Should There be an Age When Retirement is Compulsory?

YES
SAYS IAN WYLIE

Can you look around your workplace and honestly say that you don't see someone who is a walking argument for mandatory retirement? Truth is, few of us can do at 60 or 65 what we did at 30. That's not the same as saying older people don't have a vital role to play in society. And there are some regional variations. The people of Andorra, France, Sweden and Switzerland live up to 10 years longer than the average Turk, Latvian, Romanian, and Estonian, but like it or not, my physical capabilities and reaction times - hey, yours too - are deteriorating with age.

Take medicine: few could argue that a 65-year-old surgeon has the manual dexterity of a 35-year-old. Is it ethical for even one patient to be placed at risk because he or she is under the quivering knife of an ageing surgeon?

When Dr Vegard Skirbekk of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Vienna recently reviewed studies about the relationship between age and productivity, he found broad consensus that productivity dips in mid-working life. That doesn't just apply to dangerous or demanding jobs. There is plenty of evidence that by 50, some of our cognitive abilities are also getting rusty. In particular, our numerical skills and the ability to adjust rapidly to new situations, take hits in middle age.

Critics of mandatory retirement ages pull out the usual prejudices to stoke indignation at this injustice towards the elderly. Some campaigners claim mandatory retirement contravenes an EU directive against age discrimination - something refuted in October 2009 by the UK High Court. But that's the beauty of a mandatory retirement age - it shows no prejudice by sex, ethnic background or sexual orientation. Mandatory retirement helps ensure job opportunities for younger workers while giving us all a chance to leave the workplace with dignity.

Most of the pressure around scrapping retirement ages is to do with money and governments' attempts to dodge paying proper pensions. But if they agreed to the right funding, how many of us would really choose to work until we dropped?

Let's be clear - a world without retirement ages would not be a cuddlier place to work. Employers would be less willing to tolerate a decline in our performance in later years if we had no firm exit date. In the US, laws forbid mandatory retirement but also increase the cost of firing older workers, making employers reluctant to hire older staff in the first place. Our mistake is to define productivity simply in an economic context. Research suggests our general knowledge, experience and verbal ability continue undiminished as we age.

We have different things to offer to different people at different stages of our lives. Retirement therefore is an amazing opportunity to spend more quality time with our families, our friends and people in need and to use our knowledge, skills and experience to do the important jobs.

Ian Wylie writes for The Financial Times and the Guardian

NO
SAYS ROSIE CARR

It used to be married women who were pushed out of their jobs on the grounds that looking after their husbands and raising children would use up most of their brainpower. Now it's just oldies over the age of 65 who can be legally turfed onto the scrapheap of life. In Spain, for example, employees must retire at the age of 65 whether they are ready to or not. In some countries, such as France, you can lose your job with no redress from the age of 60.

But would we really end up spluttering into our café au lait if a waiter in some chic Parisian bar turned out to have grey hair?

How can we tolerate laws that prevent people who are capable of working from carrying on in a job they enjoy and need? Compulsory retirement can have devastating consequences, tipping active people into ill health and poverty.

Most people these days are still fit, healthy and mentally alert well into their 60s. They have mortgages, credit cards and a lifestyle they wish to maintain. But all of that can be pulled from under their feet simply because they have reached a particular age.

Denying people a choice over when they stop working makes no allowance for the fact that lifespans are increasing all the time. Fifty years ago, when you retired you probably had eight years left to live. Now you might live for another 30. Your pension provider knows that and will eke out payments based on the fact that you could be around for the next three decades. Your savings will soon be depleted and you could spend your last years in dire poverty. Your children won't be able to support you because they too will have been dismissed from paid work.

Advocates of a fixed retirement age say it helps younger people to get jobs. But at the same time we are told we face a labour shortage crisis. We can bring in millions of migrants but we cannot allow senior citizens to keep working.

My own father worked on well into his 70s. He was lucky - he worked for himself. He didn't want to "shut down" and wait around for death. His mind was still active and he was receptive to new ideas and loved reading up on the latest research.

Worries that employers will end up with offices and factories full of doddery, under-performing, grey-haired workers are nonsense. Younger workers might offer employers a level of energy and physical strength that older workers cannot, but not all jobs require brute force, and older workers can always be switched to different tasks. Younger workers might be more receptive to new ideas but older ones offer maturity and loyalty, a sense of perspective, knowledge and experience.

In Germany this year a compulsory retirement age of 68 for doctors was abolished because of a shortage of them in some areas and because patients wanted their GPs to keep treating them.

Not everyone will want to postpone the day they retire. But to suggest that all employees begin to decline after a certain birthday is blatant discrimination.

Rosie Carr is deputy editor of Investors Chronicle magazine


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