Why we can’t afford to continue ageist thinking


I wonder what President Michael D (80) would have thought about the idea of drawing a pension and stopping work at age 66. Or for that matter what would Judi Dench (87) David Attenborough (95) or Joanna Lumley (75) care to have been pensioned off at 66 from stage and screen. Each of them makes a wonderful contribution and I imagine that being able to do so enhances their zest for life.

Last week an Oireachtas committee announced that they were halting the proposed rise in pension age to 67 rather than raising it incrementally to 67 by 2031 and 68 by 2039 as proposed by the Pensions Commission. (Could this have anything to do with political expediency – Sinn Fein are proposing returning pensionable age to 65?)

Like all the recent deliberations around pension age and retirement this step ignores the realities of older people’s lives, is ageist and ducks the challenge of the growing cost of financing pensions as Ireland’s population ages.

Look around at people in their 60s and 70s and it is obvious that people differ widely in the way that they age. Aside from the fact that generally we stay younger longer and have added an extra 20 to 30 years to our life expectancy in the last century, some people at 66, which can be seen as the official start of ‘old age’, aren’t old at all; others sadly don’t fare so well and look and feel older.

“Age isn’t a number,” as Professor Rose Anne Kenny Head of medical Gerontology TCD says in her new book, ‘Age Proof’, which looks the breadth of biological ageing and how much it differs from chronological ageing.

“As early as 38 there can be an almost 22 years variation in biological ageing due to the factors which affect our epigenetic clocks,” she says and that those who age earlier also continue to age faster than those with a younger biological age.

Pensionable age generally influences the time when people retire. Also, the way earnings can penalise pension entitlements can also dissuade people from working. But what do people in their 60s actually want? Where some in unrewarding jobs or who are feeling their age may have had enough and can’t wait to retire, others want to continue working or want to work part-time.

Two thirds of European citizens would prefer to combine a part-time job and a partial pension rather than to retire fully. In America where mandatory retirement was dropped in 1986 nearly half of those in a recent survey wanted to continue working part-time beyond their mid 6os. The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA) found that that 25% of those in the study had no plans to retire. Wouldn’t a far more flexible approach, which allows individuals choice rather than one based on candles on a birthday cake, make sense?

Another factor which isn’t considered is the negative impact that effectively telling people they are past it has on health and ageing. If people are considered to be old they may believe that they are old. Research shows that negative attitudes towards ageing in older people are associated with a decline in walking speed and memory and poor performance in brain tests.

At present there are 4.5 people at work to one retired person; by 2050 that ratio will have declined to two workers to one retired person. This demographic shift will impact the affordability of pensions. As Minister for Social Protection Heather Humphreys pointed out, the Commission on Pensions “unambiguously established that the current State pension system is not sustainable into the future and that change is needed”.

We can’t afford to continue with ageist thinking.

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