The Ageing Population Fallacy
If enough people repeat an opinion often enough, it mutates into a credible theory. If enough people continue to endorse the theory, it becomes an axiom. And so, our brains go lazy and dull and we cease to question the assumptions and logic behind it.
We have an ageing population. This is a problem. Everyone knows this. No need to delve deeper. But what if I were to tell you that a very simple shift in perspective can flip the issue on its head?
I was reading an article in the Telegraph yesterday. It is neither the first, nor will it be the last, of its kind. I did, however, find it a perfect encapsulation of all the facile thinking around this subject. “The problem with ageing populations is that they are expensive”, Knowles muses. By calling it the “ageing population” we dehumanise the people involved. We are no longer talking about our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, but about some mysterious, esoteric, demographic kink.
More importantly – “they are expensive” for whom? All the rhetoric which relegates the elderly to the general category of “burden on society” is predicated on the idea that the generation working right now, must pay for those who are retired right now. But is that the most logical or constructive way to look at it? I put it to you, that it is a fallacy from which all sorts of erroneous conclusions may flow.
What if we looked at each individual as working for a period of their life in order to provide for their own retirement? Pensioners do not spring forth, like Harryhausen dynamation creations from sowed dragon’s teeth, already 65 and a drain on the system. The overwhelming majority are people who have worked most of their lives. Suddenly, the “ageing population problem” acquires a different hue and the questions which must be asked are distinctly uncomfortable.
There are adjustments which need to be made to the retirement age as people live longer. Adjustments to be made to what we consider a living wage, as it becomes clear that it is not enough to say that it is the minimum necessary to sustain one this month – it needs to include an element which one can put aside. Strides to be made towards full education and full employment. Adjustments to be made to what both employees and employers consider adequate pension provision. Adjustments to the taxation of those who profit disproportionally from that work. Adjustments to an employer’s national insurance contributions so that the state can provide for the health of its employees once they retire. Expensive, uncomfortable, unpopular, but totally necessary, logical and fair adjustments.
And you may note, from the above list, that these are precisely the adjustments for which the union movement has always fought. It is not a coincidence. For three decades politicians have brought collective workers’ bargaining to its knees. Releasing employers from all responsibility to those who have given them their work. It is precisely the fruition of this policy that we now call “the ageing population problem”.
And this has become a shorthand to justify all sorts of wicked changes, cruelty and unfairness. It has replaced the cries of “efficiency” of the Thatcher/Reagan era (because, by now, everyone can see that private monopolies are just as inefficient as state ones, only they screw you a little extra to make profit). The new mantra has become: “We have no choice. Our ageing population necessitates this.”
I am quite convinced that if scientists informed the Government that an extinction-event asteroid were headed for London and due to impact in a week, the response would be to privatise Observatories, give a tax break to astronauts and blame the whole thing on the “ageing population”. It has become a lewd political nervous tic.
Look at these charts showing the population numbers and distribution in the UK. Play with the sliders. The increases in population and the proportion of over-64s are exponential but, on the whole, smooth and entirely predictable. Look at the equivalent charts on life expectancy. There has been no “market shock”. There has been nothing we could not have foreseen and planned for. There has been chronic mismanagement by a succession of cowardly governments who prefer to kick difficult decisions into the long grass.
And by doing so, the decisions become more painful; more contentious. A level of adjustment is required (but a level of trust engendered) if you say to a 20-year-old in 1980: “We predict you will live to about 85. This means you will have to work until you’re 70 and put aside x amount each month.” If, on the other hand, you wait until 2010 and tell the same thing to a 50-year-old, you will have a fight on your hands – and rightly so.
All the while, a tiny slice of the construct we laughingly call The Big Society continues to accumulate an obscene amount – and I define obscene as more than anyone could possibly need. The last HMRC study on the subject in 2005 (and all indicators point to inequalities intensifying since then) shows that 5% of the UK population holds 40% of the UK’s wealth. The bottom 75% of the population hold less than 25% of the wealth. In the States it is even worse. If we want to address the “ageing population problem” that is the only place to start.
And this is the vital point. If we continue to perceive the issue as an inherited, unforeseen and surprising one – if we continue to look at our parents, grandparents and uncles as a burden which we must subsidise – we will always be retroactive, ineffective and cruel. We will never make the necessary adjustments proactively. Unless we start fighting on the issues of inequality at the heart of the matter, we will be facing the next “ageing population problem” in ten years’ time and the next one and the one after that, until the only “rational” course of action becomes a Logan’s Run.
You see, looked at in this way, there is no “ageing population problem”. There is not one working generation paying for the increasingly expensive retirement of the last. There is no ageing population. There is just population. A series of individual lives, from cradle to grave. We must urgently start asking the question: “How can it be that, after a lifetime of work, an individual has found it impossible to be in a position to sustain themselves in comfort and dignity in their old age?” Then we might get somewhere.