The BBC presenter explains how to defuse the ageing "time bomb" and shares his own experiences of growing oldby Serena Kutchinsky / February 25, 2014 / Leave a comment
“The government urgently needs to nudge the housing market to begin adapting to the needs of the ageing population”
SK: More than 10m people are now aged over 65 within the UK, and an estimated 19m people will be over 65 by 2050. How do you suggest we should address the economic challenges of our ageing population?
ED: I think one route is to ensure that people stay in work longer. Traditionally, we’ve been used to career paths that move up in a straight trajectory and then fall off dramatically as you enter retirement. This is misleading as it implies that people are in their professional prime at the age of 70. In reality, few people are at their intellectual and physical peak then, and it might be helpful to alter career patterns so that people can slowly ease themselves out of work.
So, you think there should be more opportunities for people to take on reduced roles prior to retirement?
Yes, but it needs to be clear that it’s not a demotion and doesn’t affect final salary pension entitlements. The benefits for older people would be the ability to maintain the lifestyle to which they’ve become accustomed for longer before their income drops off and they start claiming their pension. So head teachers could become supply teachers, chief executives could move into consulting and non-executive directorships. These are the obvious examples but I’m confident it could be applied across the professions.
Should companies be creating new roles for older employees? And, isn’t there a risk that older people would end up staying in jobs longer even when they couldn’t perform as well as in the past, making it harder for those below them to progress?
You don’t want businesses dreaming up jobs for people. You just want there to be a more open-minded view of the pattern that careers should take. Equally, you want to avoid the example of the royal family and the papacy, where longer life expectancy means that people only reach the top job when they are over 70. I think it would be great if elderly people were able to consider taking part-time jobs in sectors such as retail which are traditionally the preserve of young people. You rarely go into a shop and see a sexteganarian serving behind the till.
When would you like to retire?
I would like my life to follow the route that I just described. I would like to retire from my peak job in my early 60s. But I wouldn’t want to stop working completely at that point. I’m lucky because in the creative professions it is relatively easy to do freelance-style work, such as writing articles and books and giving lectures. But most people face a stark choice between either staying on in their job or retiring with nothing in between.
Are we as a society reluctant to face the challenges of old age partly due to a collective fear of the ageing process?
We are not a society which gears itself well for old age. After all, it is a relatively recent phenomenon. People used to have a pension as an insurance policy just in case they lived beyond when they were supposed to work—the expectation wasn’t that you were entitled to 30 years of leisure after 40 years of work.
Is there a danger that we might go too far the other way and create a society that is so politically correct about old age we pretend it doesn’t exist?
There’s a danger that in trying to be supportive of older people we end up pretending they are the same as young people, and shout down those who claim that old people have slower reactions, don’t see as well or can’t remember things. There was an internal age awareness campaign at the BBC several years ago with posters plastered everywhere stating that we shouldn’t judge old people as being old. There were some dubious statistics about how often old people have sex. It was almost certainly devised by young people, whose only way of engaging with old age was to spread the lie that there is no difference between old age and youth. My mum and dad aren’t the same as a couple in their 20s or 30s. It’s pathetic to pretend otherwise. My respect for my parents’ economic rights derives purely from the fact that they are important people and I need to look after them.
Should over 65-year-olds be thinking seriously about starting new careers or even going back to university?
It doesn’t make economic sense for that age group to go back to university. When you send a young person to university, you are setting them up for a career that is going to last 30 to 40 years. So there is a pay off. Sending a young person to university isn’t just so they can gain knowledge and drink beer, the consumption value isn’t just for the individual. If you send people to university at 65, you are unlikely to get more than five years out of that investment. If pensioners want to learn new skills they would be better off attending evening classes.
Do you think it’s accurate for the press to speculate about an “ageing population time bomb”?
I don’t like the time bomb analogy, because that implies we are heading to a point at which it will detonate. What is actually going to happen is that people will reach state pension age and realise that their living standards aren’t as high as they would like them to be. So they will end up working a bit longer and the crisis will be resolved. You simply need more workers and fewer retired people.
That view certainly seems to reflect current trends—nearly 1 in 10 people over 65 are still in work—which is a 10 per cent increase on last year.
So, that’s part of the solution. But, there is a worry that today’s workers have unrealistic expectations about what their eventual retirement will consist of based on the standard set by today’s aged generation. Old age is expensive—the healthcare costs, the social care and the lack of income all add up. And the only routes through which funds can be transferred from young to old are the capital market, the tax system and direct family connections. There’s also a shift of resources through the housing market as old people trade down big properties to young people.
Are there tensions between old and young people as a result of this future disparity in living standards?
There is a bit of a war between the generations, or at least a conflict of interests. Ultimately, the younger generation will always support the older generation because they have to and the older generation supported them. But the former have some reason to feel aggrieved at the reduced quality of the retirement they are facing. Take my father for example—he retired very young. He had scored financially through rising property prices and high inflation that wiped out his mortgage. I’m not begrudging my father his retirement—but his generation is enjoying a lifestyle in old age which is better than their children can expect, and better than that which their parents experienced. In some ways they are a blessed generation.
In which areas could the government potentially intervene to ease the strain on resources?
The government urgently needs to nudge the housing market to begin adapting to the needs of the ageing population. We are not building enough new houses for it to be possible for single elderly people to continue to occupy large family homes worth around £300,000. I am very sympathetic to those people who don’t want to move out of the family home before they die, but it is still not a practical situation in this country. One of the reasons housing is under taxed relative to other forms of consumption is because there are lots of these elderly homes. When you tax them at the normal rate, it becomes unmanageable for pensioners. So, we’ve ended up in a bad place where we have people in large homes, unable to heat more than one room because they are cash poor and asset rich. We need to start offering old people alternative solutions—they don’t want to go into nursing care, that’s hopeless. The focus until now has been on building urban flats aimed at young professional couples of breeding age, which are not at all suitable for the elderly.
It’s been claimed that elderly people are under-represented in the media. Do you think this is something that should be addressed, or should we just accept that the viewing public prefer to see images of youth and beauty?
There is clearly discrimination in the media, especially in TV, in favour of sexually attractive people. Is that good or bad? I don’t know. But, I think you need a balance of youth and authority on TV. So, out of 10 newsreaders I would prefer that three or four were attractive. You don’t want them all to be chosen for their looks.
What is the current percentage of women over-50 working as presenters at the BBC?
It’s shockingly low. I don’t know the exact figure but it’s universally accepted that there need to be more older women on TV and radio. However, we also shouldn’t pretend it is going to be proportional to the population because old people would sometimes rather watch younger people. I’m a solid pragmatist. I don’t want good looking people removed from the screens, because it’s not fair. But I am aware that it is, or at least has been in the past, harder for women when decisions are made based on sexual attractiveness.
Is the ageing process harder for women overall because there are more pressures on them to maintain their looks?
Women have it harder in some respects and easier in others. Historically they have tended to enjoy earlier retirement and longer life expectancy, which are not immaterial benefits. But that’s converging a bit now for both genders. Men have traditionally gone to work and women have stayed at home, and as a result women have been less exhausted and lived longer. Now we are seeing a generation come through with much higher employment rates and life expectancies are converging.
Are you, as a gay man with no children, concerned about being alone in your dotage?
I have never had any expectation of children. I certainly don’t worry about who will wipe my bottom when I’m old, although I do have the luxury of being financially stable. Gay couples adopting children is a recent cultural trend. When I was in my 30s it was certainly more radical than it is now. However, I have just bought a new puppy, Mr Whippy, who I am aware is an embarrassingly obvious child substitute. Sadly, he’s not going to look after my partner and I in our retirement—we have to wipe his bottom.
Do you think concern about being alone in old age is a factor in the increased number of gay couples adopting?
I think it’s more the psychological need for children to fulfill the connection to youth rather than old age. It is an interesting question, because as a gay adult you remain a teenager longer than everyone else and don’t have the grey hairs induced by bringing up children, but you do fall out of touch with young people. My friends at work who have children are much more in touch with today’s teenagers.
What have been the best and worst aspects of the ageing process for you so far?
The worst part by far is the loss of memory. I find it increasingly hard to remember people’s names and facts which is not helped by the sleep deprivation that I suffer as a result of working on the Today programme. It also takes me far longer to recover from a night of heavy drinking than it did when I was at university. But, overall I feel comfortable about being in my 50s, I’m less hotheaded and my judgement is much improved. It helps that your friends age with you, so none of it’s very shocking. You always know someone who is older than you.