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Issue 112

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AGEING[image, unknown] Human rights

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Penny-pinching
The amount spent on UK state pensions is one seventh of all government expenditure. And still British pensioners live in poverty.

But can the country afford to keep its retired people in the style to which they were accustomed? Jill Manthorpe argues that it both can and should.

On Wednesday mornings between 10 and 11 o’clock, the glossy chrome, white and red McDonald’s hamburger chain has a slightly different clientele. Along with teenagers in tight jeans and kids tugging at their mothers’ coat sleeves, the formica tables and white-capped waitresses welcome the local pensioners. There’s a free cup of coffee during pensioner’s hour for anyone who can produce their pension book. Pensioners just don’t know when they’re well off!

It is, of course, only the poor who have to accept charity. And pensioners are poor – and powerless too. They have nothing to bargain with. They can’t strike – they have no jobs. They can’t act as a strong consumer lobby – they can’t afford to consume very much. And although not lumped in with the unemployed and work-shy, they are regarded as burdens on society.

Pensioners are continually being reminded of how much they cost. In Britain they take up to 40 per cent of health and other social services. They occupy at least half of National Health Service beds. And it costs seven times as much to treat a person aged over 75 as it does to treat someone of working age.

In 1982, expenditure on retirement pensions and other benefits in Britain will total nearly $30 billion. That’s nearly half of all social security benefits or one seventh of all government expenditure. And the numbers of pensioners are growing – not simply because more people are reaching retirement age, but because those who have retired are living longer.

The rise in the numbers of pensioners to nine and a half million in the UK is causing alarm. Pensioners are seen as competing for a scarce resource: money. And they’re competing with an increasing number of disadvantaged people: the unemployed, single-parent families, the disabled – all of whom have in turn become a ‘priority’ as their numbers have grown and they have been ‘discovered’ to be in need.

Still, nine and a half million pensioners is nine and a half million pensioners, whichever way you look at it. And to improve the lot of that number of people is going to be expensive. The government declares that it can’t afford even to increase the $60 death grant that it pays to help spouses with the cost of burying or cremating their dead partners. With the cost of just a modest funeral estimated to be about $800, much of the energy of pensioners’ organisations in Britain has been dissipated simply fighting for people to be allowed to go to their graves without bankrupting their surviving relatives. And if the cost of dying is high, the cost of living is higher still.

People are growing old faster than children are being born to support them in their old age. In 1931, for every British person aged over 75 there were 13 people aged between 45 and 64. In 1991 there will be less than four. The base of what is often seen as a pyramid of support is shrinking. Will there come a point when it becomes too top-heavy and topples over completely?

This is what successive governments would have us believe. As long ago as 1891 any expenditure on old people has been opposed on the grounds that the burden it would put on the rest of the community would be insupportable. When a British pension – of five shillings a week to the three per cent of the population aged over 70 – was proposed it was dismissed as being ‘so Utopian that it does not provide food for serious discussion’. Since then there have been regular ‘pension crises’ each time another hundred thousand people go to retirement. And every time, increases in pensions have been opposed on the same grounds: that living standards of the rest of the community would have to drop unacceptably in order to finance a more generous slice for the elderly.

Well, since the idea of a pension was first posited nearly a century ago no such disaster has occurred. Though the numbers of elderly people have increased fivefold and the state pension paid to those people has also increased fivefold in real terms – the real income of the average working person has managed to increase a great deal more. So clearly it has been possible to increase pensions without dragging everyone else’s income down into the dust.

Old people are looked upon as a burden because what they consume (which is undeniably small) is larger than what they contribute to society. But they consume more than they produce largely because, having reached an arbitrary retirement age, the are no longer permitted to contribute to the economy. More than this, they are even discouraged from productive employment (if they are lucky enough to find it) by the so-called ‘earnings rule’ in Britain — whereby a person’s pension is actually reduced if they earn ‘too much’.

It’s a schizophrenic system. Retired people are caught either way: a fair pension, they are told, would cripple a sinking economy. But when they attempt to work in the economy — and pay taxes to help finance other peoples’ pensions — they are discouraged by the earnings rule.

Similarly, while governments tear their hair over the numbers of pensioners, they are simultaneously considering lowering the age of retirement to ease unemployment by increasing the number of pensioners. But the proposal would only replace young unemployed by old unemployed. Perhaps pensioners are cheaper than unemployed schoolleavers. They are certainly quieter.

But, though it may be schizophrenic and contradictory, the result is the same — poverty for pensioners.

But there are alternatives. In France occupational pensions cushion the majority of retired workers in relative comfort. The French system differs from that in other Western countries by being less fragmented. One recent estimate put the number of pension funds in the UK at 60,000! Having so many independent non-government schemes is both inflexible and expensive with high administrative costs but low benefits for the individual worker.

By contrast, the system in France operates with a few large pension funds with simple transfer agreements between them. A person’s finance accumulates steadily and the contributor benefits effortlessly.

While occupational pension schemes fail to benefit the manual labourer or the housewife who has never worked, Michael Fogarty of the UK’s Policy Studies Institute argues that such schemes would make it possible for the government to increase pensions for those not covered by occupational schemes.

Combined with voluntary, flexible retirement — allowing those who enjoy their work to continue doing it while giving those who are worn down by their jobs a chance of a well-earned rest — such schemes might make a great deal of difference to a pensioner’s standard of living.

Provisions such as these are on the statute book in the UK. The 1975 Social Security Pension Act, which becomes fully operational in 1998, will set in motion the wheels of a new pension machine for today’s workers.

But its effects will be delayed. It will take another 60 years before the full benefits are felt by retired people. While that means the future looks more secure for me, it means that there is much for today’s pension activist to do for today’s pensioners.

The British Pensioner and Trade Union Action Committee (BPTUAC) has found a champion in Jack Jones, the retired General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union. Although not supporting flexible retirement, he believes that retirement age will only be determined fairly when the choice is between a fair wage and a fair pension. ‘Pensioners united will win justice’ is BPTUAC’s slogan. And the justice they claim is some reward for what Jack Jones calls ‘the massive contribution we made to the progress of this country’.

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Jill Manthorpe, former Press Officer of Age Concern,
now works as a counsellor in South London, UK

Best-selling author Alex Comfort argues that
ageing issues are human rights issues:
Old people need what people need

What comes to mind when you think of an old person? A person, old in appearance, who happens to have been around a long time? Or someone who has undergone transmutation — someone who is no longer his or her old self, reduced to a shell by declining performance, declining mental power, asexuality, unemployability, ineducability and a disturbing liability to fall sick or go crazy?

This caricature of age is probably the worst cross older people in Western countries have to bear. Because we ‘know’ their skills have left them, we do not employ them. Because we ‘know’ them to be incapable of decision-making and in need of a keeper, we take insulting and inappropriate decisions for them. Because we ‘know’ that old people are incurably infirm we have neglected geriatric medicine for many years.

Pensioner Power In fact, this portrait of old age is only an accurate picture of someone afflicted by a specific dementing illness — not a normal old person at all. But so pervasive is the stereotype that many older people are agreeably surprised when they find it doesn’t apply to them. So they conclude they must be lucky.

Ignorance about old age shapes public policy too. Western societies dispense with the skills or their most experienced citizens and then fail to make proper provision for their needs. Instead, old people are treated as dependents whose only suitable occupation is ‘making things out of egg boxes’, and who need to be amused and treated like children while living near the poverty line.

One possible reason for the ignorance that surrounds ageing may well be the reduced contact of younger people with the old. In the multi-generation family, children were as familiar with older people as they were with babies.

But in those days life was shorter and old people rarer. Today, mistaken fears about the incapacities of age mean that people tend to deny that they will ever grow old, rarely plan realistically for their future and encounter serious problems when that future arrives.

Combating this fear and changing the policies of a society that buries the old prematurely calls for the same remedy: education. Most of us alive today can expect to reach old age — provided those paranoids in power don’t bring us to an untimely end. Education about the realities of ageing needs to begin young before our fears and prejudices are formed.

But things are changing. In the last few years, the militancy of older citizens themselves, together with the exertions of some intelligent concerned people have begun to make a dent in the monolith of ignorance and prejudice. More and more it is being realised that old people need what people need: personal autonomy and dignity, a useful role in society and appropriate, affordable health care.

As an age group they also need some specific extras — in just the same way as young adults need help with job-seeking or house purchase. A practical urgency in many countries is still the development and availability of proper geriatric medicine. The old are especially vulnerable to mis-medication — being prescribed drugs they don’t need or having their curable complaints ignored. And bad housing due to town planners overlooking the needs of the elderly is a continual problem.

Other needs are more general: a decent income and the right to continued employment in occupations where accumulated skills are valued, recognised and used for serious purposes — though these may prove to be unpopular priorities at a time of general economic collapse, budget overruns and youth unemployment

Still, there is comfort in the growing number — and militancy — of the over 60s. Few Western governments can be unaware of the demographics of the future. And there are few politicians who do not hear the tramp of senior feet behind them.

It has been said that the form of future health care in the United States will soon be shaped by the senior vote. It would be gratifying to think that the same elder constituency might also turn the balance against increasing military expenditure in their quest for greater consideration of their demands.

But one would hope for the time when a senior lobby is unnecessary. And we should resist any tendency to create a senior faction. Justice for the old is justice for people — and we should all be interested in it: not only because we will all become old but because education about age is also education about human rights and human needs. Accurate knowledge and caring concern about the old, like concern about any minority group, is the litmus test of a decent social order.

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Dr Alex Comfort is Adjunct Professor in Geriatric
Psychiatry at the Neuropsychiatric Institute, UCLA,
US and author of A Good Age (Michael Beazley, 1977)
The Joy of Sex and More Joy of Sex.



Lucky for some

One third of all voters in the rich world will be over 60 by the year 2025, according to the United Nations. This means that the potential political influence of this long-neglected age group will have grown enormously. And in Australia, one of the richest countries in the world, there are already signs of a shift in power towards the older generation.

The number of old Australians is increasing rapidly. Within 20 years the country will have twice as many over-75s as today. And that’s just for starters. It’s at the end of the first decade of the 21st century that the 1940s baby boom really starts to bite.

If today’s statistics are troubling Australian planners trying to cope with current pension servicing, these projected hordes of old people must be making them despair.

Politicians have been quick to recognise the growing clout of the elderly in Australia This is obvious by the way the conservative Australian government — as obsessed as Thatcher and Reagan with achieving spending cuts — has nevertheless been extremely cautious in taking the knife to old-age pensions. In 1978 the government announced it was going to review and update pensions annually instead of every six months. Immediately there was an outcry. Such was the storm of pensioner protest that six-monthly indexing had to be brought back in 1980.

At state government level too, pensioners have successfully lobbied for a whole range of concessions: electricity rebates, motor vehicle subsidies, assistance in meeting local government charges, travel and entertainment subsidies, home help and handyman assistance.

And big business is greedily aware of the millions Australia’s affluent old have to spend. Inspired by the success of The Pensioner (a newspaper dedicated to the affairs of the old) Australia’s biggest newspaper publisher, the Herald and Weekly Times, this year launched Prime Time — a glossy ragbag for the over-60s, to soak up the advertising overflow.

Superannuation, gratuity payments and long service leave make the retired much better pickings these days than the once big-spending ranks of youngsters now badly thinned by job shortages. Banks, finance corporations and investment advisers toady revoltingly to the needs of the elderly on television, in newspapers and magazines. And the travel industry woos them too — selling them tours at the top end of the market.

It’s at the other end of the market that the dream turns sour. Australia might be the ‘lucky country’ for most but soup kitchens in the inner cities still draw a solid patronage from the old.

Ten per cent of all pensioners must survive on their pension alone. Another 30 per cent have an extra income of between $1-$6 a week. With a weekly pension of only $73, many people in this bracket are among the one million Australians living below the poverty line.

The potential for pensioner power is enormous, and growing. It will reach its peak in the first two decades of the next century. But the organisation of the ageing into pressure groups is just beginning and — many would say — it is long overdue. Said one pensioner wistfully:

‘Some of us once had good brains. But they don’t work any more. We should have done all this organising within the unions for ourselves 20 years ago’.

Among the organisations agitating for a fairer deal for the elderly are:

• The Australian Pensioners Federation — with the ear of the government and nearly 20 affiliated organisations, currently pushing the slogan ‘Share the Wealth’ and campaigning for a base pension rate of 30 per cent of average weekly earnings.

• Voice of the Elderly (VOTE) — a relative newcomer, concentrating on consumer issues.

• Australian Council on the Ageing (ACOA) — part government-funded, councils in each state monitor services and resources available to old people and aim to raise general consciousness on the views and needs of the elderly.

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