In 1909, a mere 20 years behind Germany, the Liberal government introduced old age pensions for the over 70s. The Chancellor, Lloyd George, claimed the pension, means tested and paid on a sliding scale, would “lift the shadow of the workhouse from the homes of the poor”.

If you lived long enough, that is. At the time, life expectancies for Scottish men and women were 50 and 53 years respectively. True, the figures were depressed by high infant mortality rates, but nevertheless, none of my grandparents lived to celebrate their 70th birthdays. They missed out on retirement, failed to pass go and didn’t collect the meagre state pension to which they would have been entitled.

Despite physically demanding working lives, the prospect of a comfortable and secure retirement was a cruel mirage. Indeed, they would have struggled to grasp the concept, simply because they didn’t expect to live long enough or have enough to retire on. The prospect of old age and/or infirmity was simply another layer of the insecurity experienced during the economic depression of the1930s.

My mother, one of six children, hated the summer “holidays” when her father’s works closed for two weeks. It was in effect a lockout as the owner, comfortably ensconced in his west end mansion, “couldn’t afford” holiday pay. There was no financial cushion for old age; her father worked until he suffered a stroke, her mother having died in her fifties. Sadly, the reduction in the pension qualifying age to 65 (60 for women) in 1946, came too late for them and a great many like them.

Things of course, have moved on. The majority of us can be confident of living long enough to collect our state pensions. Until recently, its value protected by the triple lock. Just don’t bet the house on it being restored when memories of the pandemic have faded.

Recent years have been particularly kind to the post-war baby boom generation. The most fortunate have enjoyed final salary, index-linked pensions. Some have been even luckier, taking early retirement or going part-time through winding down schemes.

Then there’s the other fringe benefits: free bus travel, winter heating allowances and the Christmas bonus. Less physical work and improved healthcare have all contributed to pre-Covid life expectancies for men and women rising to 77 and 81 years respectively. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, quite a lot actually. Firstly, pensioners are not a homogeneous group. While some are living the life of Reilly, many are not. Earlier this year Age Scotland reported around 120,000 Scottish pensioners are living in “persistent poverty”, the highest proportion of any of the UK nations. Recent difficulties accessing GP and other medical services will have impacted negatively on the health and longevity of the elderly. In our most deprived areas, male life expectancy had already fallen below 70 years, heading back to the bad old days when many died before collecting a state pension.

Financial considerations aside, retirement has other pluses and minuses. We have more discretionary time for hobbies and families, although the latter can bring its problems. Being together all day, every day, has contributed to the rising divorce rate amongst the over 60s, the group now known as the “silver splitters”. (I’m mentioning that just to keep my wife on her toes.)

Some retirees find it hard to adjust to their new status and lifestyles. Self-concept and self-worth are often tied up with “the job”. Others report a sense of loneliness when detached from the camaraderie of the workplace. Many working from home for the past 18 months will have had a similar experience. Reduced mental and physical activity contributes to increased stress and health issues, particularly amongst those of us seeing away more alcohol than we should. Increasingly, retirees worry about their future care: what happens when/if I can’t live independently?

Beyond those personal adjustments, there are national and economic pressures determining the future shape of retirement. Increasing life expectancy and an aging population will place ever heavier demands on those of working age. The UK, like many other countries, is in the process of increasing the age at which the state pension is claimed.

There are those, like the right-wing Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), who believe the changes are too slow and don’t go far enough. In its report, Ageing Confidently, the CSJ claims “hundreds of thousands” of older people who could be working are “economically inactive”. It recommends the pensionable age be raised to 70 by 2028 and 75 by 2035.

Others on the political right argue that able bodied pensioners should earn their pensions through service, such as caring for the frail elderly in their communities. It’s unlikely however, you’ll find members of the CSJ, including its founder Iain Duncan Smith, wiping backsides in a care home near you.

Needless to say, its recommendations would fall hardest on the most vulnerable, including the unemployed, low paid and infirm. In the eyes of the well-heeled CSJ, that might be unfortunate, but the hardships of the1930s weren’t all that bad, were they?

Changing demographics necessitate a review of retirement and how it’s funded. Nevertheless, the bottom, non-negotiable line must remain that, after a lifetime’s employment, there is entitlement to a dignified retirement.

As a former colleague once told me, “I work to live, not live to work”. Compulsory enrolment in workplace pensions will help, although the vulnerable are likely to lose out once again. Some will always need a leg up and the neo-liberal dogma of those such as the CSJ, can’t be allowed to bring back the insecurities and indignities of the bad old days.

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