Should we increase the state pension age?

Many Western economies face a demographic time bomb – an ageing population, which places strain on government spending and the welfare state. To deal with this situation, governments face several difficult choices –

  1. Raise taxes to pay for pensions,
  2. Shift the emphasis on to the private sector provision of pensions,
  3. Raise the retirement age
  4. Cut other forms of spending to be able to maintain pension commitments.

Recently, the UK chancellor George Osborne, has suggested that he favours a solution which involves automatically linking state pension to life expectancy; this could see the state retirement age, increasing to 70. It is estimated, this could save up to £500bn over 50 years; there would be a very significant opportunity cost to keeping the retirement age at 65.

However, others are more critical of increasing the retirement age. They argue that raising the retirement age will adversely affect low income workers who find it more difficult to save for a private pension. Also, some economists question whether we really have a demographic time bomb, and argue that the fears of an ageing population are exaggerated.

The extent of the problem

The dependency ratio is the ratio of people who are not of working age compared to those who are of working age. If there is a higher % of pensioners then the dependency ratio will rise. Basically a higher dependency ratio means a relatively greater number of benefit recipients to tax payers.



Source: Dept for work and Pensions

This graph shows that all Western economies face a rise in the dependency ratio (assuming a retirement age of 65). However, the UK’s demographic forecast is not as bad as other countries. This is partly because the UK has had significant levels of immigration and an increase in the population.

How UK spending on pensions has increased

government-spending-percent-gdp-uk-1950-2019 The share of GDP spent on pensions in UK has increased from 2% in 1950 to 8% in 2016, it is forecast to rise towards 10% of GDP by 2062. See: UK pension spending

Arguments for raising the pension age to 70

1. Increasing life expectancy . Increasing life expectancy means that it makes sense to raise the retirement age. When the first state pensions were introduced in 1908, the pension age was set at 70. It was later reduced to 65. But, since the start of the Twentieth Century, we have seen a rapid increase in life expectancy. It means that people are living for longer. If we keep the retirement age the same, we are trying to support an ever increasing % of people’s life in retirement. Rather than seeing it as a bad thing the retirement age is increasing, we should see it as a good thing we are enjoying greater life expectancy. Since 1981, longevity has increased 5.3 years

2. Higher tax revenue. As well as saving the government pension spending, if people work longer it will increase income tax revenues. Increasing the labour supply will also increase the productive capacity of the economy.

3. Will enable the government to increase the value of the state pension. If the retirement age is increased, the government will be able to afford an increase in the real value of the state pension. A higher basic state pension will help reduce poverty without creating disincentives to save that means tested top up benefits do. People may prefer a decent pension spread over a smaller number of years than a limited pension stretched over a longer time period.

3. More flexible labour markets. At the moment, several professions have a fixed retirement age; this means people have to retire at a certain age, even if they would prefer to keep working. Increasing the state pension age, will enable people to work longer. It may be that people work part time towards the end of their working life, but it will help increase the supply of labour. With jobs increasingly non-manual, there isn’t any physical barrier for people to keep working. It means the economy can benefit from highly experienced and highly skilled workers.

4. Better than the alternatives. The alternatives to increasing the retirement age are also unattractive. It would entail placing a higher tax burden on the working population; these higher tax rates could reduce incentives to work.

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Pensioners better off, young people worse off

I often like to tease my parents because they both now both qualify for free bus travel – one of the many ‘perks’ of being ‘old’. Half-jokingly I say they are the lucky generation. Buying a house in the 1960s, enabled a massive increase in wealth. They benefited from an era of full employment and greater relative job security. Neither went to university (so had no student loan to pay off ). But, in those days, a degree wasn’t so necessary (My Dad was last year to train as an accountant without even an A-level) 30 years later, with their mortgage paid off, their outgoings are relatively modest. Yet, despite the relative comfort of this generation, they are still entitled to a whole host of perks and benefits in kind from our ‘generous’ government.

Compare that to the younger generation. Getting on the property ladder is very difficult –  unless you are willing to take on excessive amounts of debt (probably to add to your student loans) The effect is that young people face high rents or high mortgage payments. Amongst young people, unemployment is very high. (18%) Those with jobs still face the harsher realities of the modern workforce – zero hour contracts, greater job insecurity and the very modern development of under-employment.

However, the baby boomers generation is quite politically powerful. Chancellors never seem to lose an opportunity to give more benefits to pensioners – free TV license, free bus pass, winter fuel discount. However, those who face unemployment and declining real wages, will see only rising living costs and little support. The costs of youth unemployment (both economic and social) are exceptionally high, but politically, there seems to be relatively little concern.

A recent report by the IFS show rising income disparity between the generations.

  • The median – or middle – income of the over 60s grew by 2-3% between 2007/08 and 2011/12, continuing a long-term trend.
  • Yet, the median income of people in their 20s fell by 12% over the same period, allowing for inflation. This was the largest fall of any age group, owing to low or frozen wages and high unemployment.
  • According to dept of work and pensions  1 in 6 children now live in poverty.

The decline in pension poverty is very good and signs of social progress. But, maybe we should be giving free bus travel not to pensioners,  but those who are unemployed or seeking a more permanent job.

Benefits in Kind

It is also important to bear in mind that income is only one factor that determines living standards. If you can live rent free (having paid off mortgage) and you also gain other free perks, that gives much greater security and discretionary income than having to pay a fortune for rent and paying off a student loan.

IFS – pensioners income rising faster at BBC

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