Working till 68: great as long as you like your job

 

The plan to raise the eligibility age for State pensions will see many employees working until theyre 68. Should we welcome or fear it, writes BRIAN O'CONNELL

THIS WEEK’S announcement by the Government that the qualifying age for a State pension is set to rise, first to 66 and eventually to 68, has reignited debate among workers and employer bodies on ageing in the workplace. The bottom line, which justifies the increase from the Government’s point of view, is that we are living longer and healthier lives.

So raising the eligibility age for the State pension makes economic sense for the Government and follows similar moves in countries across Europe. But what of the worker?

The debate throughout Europe on raising the retirement age has been further fuelled by the fact that Europeans are having fewer children.

It is said that Italy, for example, will need to raise the retirement age to 77 or admit more than two million immigrants to maintain its current workforce.

Moves in Spain to raise the retirement age from 65 to 67 were met with mass protests, while in the UK David Cameron’s proposal to raise the retirement age by one year drew a mixed response at the Tory Party conference last year.

Rachel Krys, director of the Employers Forum on Age, notes that whenever the proposal to raise the retirement age is mooted in an EU country, it is met with public outcry.

“It is a very politically unpopular thing to do,” she says. “In reality, though, we are all living so much longer it seems inevitable we have to do it.”

A spokeswoman for the Help the Aged charity in the UK points out that current retirement expectations are anti-elderly. “The default retirement age has stamped an expiry date on hundreds of thousands of older workers. It’s the most disturbing example of age discrimination, which still tarnishes later life for so many people,” she says.

Eamon Timmins, of Age Action Ireland, says we need to be careful not to confuse the age of retirement with the age of eligibility for the State pension. While many current work contracts may force employees to retire at 65, if the State pension does not come into effect until 66 or 68, there could be a significant income gap for some workers.

Generally, though, Timmins says his members would welcome the raising of the retirement age in line with the pension age.

“We would hope that the working age would rise,” he says. “In the years ahead, employers in Ireland will need more workers. Our experience presently is that older workers are being kicked out the door as fast as they can get them out. Many in their late 50s and early 60s are targeted and are not getting promotion. Hopefully that will change.”

Research currently underway at the Netwell Centre, Dundalk Institute of Technology, is intended to build up a comprehensive picture of the ageing and retirement experience in Ireland. It follows similar studies in Trinity College Dublin and University College Cork. But in a sense, academia too is playing catch-up with the societal implications of greater life expectancy.

Dr Ann O’Hanlon, senior research fellow at Dundalk Institute of Technology, explains that we need to take account of instances where people can be compulsorily retired, or are not given sufficient options or choices to remain in their work, even part-time.

“In such cases the consequences on psychological well-being can be very serious, not least given the negative attitudes adults have towards ageing and/or older people,” she says. “Yet people in later life have a tremendous amount of skill and experience to offer others.”

This is a view shared by Dr Claire Donnellan in Trinity College Dublin, who completed a PhD study on “successful ageing”.

“The concept of us working older is new to the Irish,” she says. “Successful ageing can allow for greater social connection and self-esteem. There are positive psychological benefits from working longer. But it is proven to be beneficial only if the person is working in a desirable position – and I think that is a key point.”

AS THE WORKFORCE changes and gets older, it is inevitable that the workplace too will have to adapt to and be altered by its greying employees. The opportunities for more flexible work practices and modified job roles, especially in labour-intensive sectors, are likely to become a reality.

In certain professions, such as construction, frontline medical care and education, the raising of the retirement age may be counter-productive and even endanger employees’ health.

Other professions, such as the judiciary and Civil Service, may benefit from having experienced employees around for longer.

Brian Ward, whose company, TA (Third Age) Futures, works with people wishing to extend and adapt their retirement, believes that extended retirements are leading to more choices for retired workers. “We are noticing a lot more people making plans for a longer horizon,” he says.

“When I look at this in relation to retirement age, it seems to me that, in one sense, the notion of retirement probably needs to be revisited. If you go back years ago, you had people working productively up to age 65 and then it was over. In many cases, people died soon after retirement.”

Ward argues that, in the past, employees often went from being useful members of society to becoming supernumeraries in a very short space of time. While the future workforce may become a lot greyer, the crucial issue for any employee is still about making the right choices.

“Look, leisure only makes sense in the context of other things in your life,” he says. “The perspective I would come from is that life is a series of portfolios. It’s all about selecting the right combination of portfolios that works for you.”

Mannix Berry (65) Retired school teacher

‘THERE ARE PEOPLE at 65 who feel they can go on and are willing to do so and would like to. The age of retirement for teachers is 65 and, to be quite honest, I probably would have worked on. I loved what I was doing – I think that makes a big difference.

“I have hardly time to catch my breath since retiring. I wouldn’t mind doing a bit of subbing or part-time work. To be occupied is the thing. There is only so much gardening and fiddling around the house you can do.”

Maria Fehily (25) Employed hair stylist

‘I PROBABLY WOULD expect to go part-time later in life. Obviously I wouldn’t like to work until I am 70. I am just starting to think about retirement and pension now because it is in the news . . . You wouldn’t see many hairdressers aged over 50. I know one hairdresser who’s in her 50s and she sends clients to me because she feels out of touch with younger styles.

“In our profession we can experience back problems. I’m only 25 and already I have had physiotherapy and back massages to strengthen my lower back . . . With hairdressing I might not be able to hold a scissors, so 55, I think, is a good age for me.”

Tony McCarthy (47) Film producer

‘BEING SELF-EMPLOYED I don’t look to an exact date or year when I will retire. I’ll look to see what life might bring. Economically, if there is a possibility of retiring early, then I might. The beauty of being self-employed is that you can partially retire and you can cut back, but you can still work away. Age is irrelevant in a sense.

“A more important point, I think, is that, rather than looking at the age people should retire, we should manage and get more involved in managing our pensions more. It’s not as big a mystery as people think.”