Monday, 28 June 2010

Julian Knight: Our ageing population must be less ageist

We've known for several years that we will have to wait longer for our state pension, but the goalposts were moved once again last week with the confirmation that the Government wants first men and later women to work till 66 from 2016.

But what work are people going to do while they wait for the least generous state pension in the developed world? Finding a job beyond 50 or even younger in some professions (such as media) is nearly impossible as employers routinely discount older candidates because they are supposedly more likely to be off ill and are difficult to train. This is nonsense; in my experience, younger workers' sick records are often far worse, and to suggest older workers can't be trained is pure prejudice.

Yet the UK workplace is steeped in ageism: it can be found in job adverts specifying "energetic", "fresh" or just plain discriminatory "young" applicants only. When it comes time to get rid of staff, often older members are the first out of the door. Some retailers recruit older people and make a lot of PR noise out of it, but do you fancy spending the back end of your career as an Asda greeter?

For this to work, we need a fundamental shift in how society views age. To a certain extent this will happen naturally. We are an ageing population so you'd hope that we would wake up to the fact that by being ageist at work we're hurting ourselves. But I don't have huge faith in people to learn this lesson fast. We do have age discrimination laws but they are limited to the under-65s, and I feel they don't genuinely stigmatise in the same way as sex and race laws do. It's still the case that although the pension age is 65, the average age a man stops working in the UK is about 62.

If the Tories expect us to wait even longer for our pension – beyond 70 – then they should get interventionist (which they won't) over the subject of age discrimination and more flexible over retirement saving (which I expect they will). They have to close the gap between when people really finish work and the state pension age or, at worst, keep it to about three years. The alternative is allowing hundreds of thousands more men and women to eke out the best part of a decade on benefits before eventually getting their hands on a state pension.

Read my lips: more taxes

It's an old joke, but how can you tell a politician is lying? Answer: their lips move. Throughout the election we had Labour with its fictitious public spending efficiency measures and now feigned horror at a VAT rise it certainly was planning itself. Meanwhile, the Lib Dems and Tories pretend that now they've seen the books then the rise was inevitable, although they too planned it all along.

If you're tempted to think you got away lightly, think again. Who is to say that the downgraded economic forecasts aren't still overly optimistic? Only a percentage point out and more taxes will have to go up.

Lloyds' sleight of hand

If I didn't know better, I'd think that we were seeing a gradual unwinding of the punitive unauthorised bank charges regime when Lloyds announced last week that from December (why the wait?) it will cut its fees for bouncing cheques and direct debits. Most of the big players have reduced their charges with some notable exceptions (Clydesdale bank still levies a rip-off 30 per cent interest on its unauthorised borrowings and a £35 "unpaid item" fee), but these fees are still a massive money-spinner for the banks. All that is happening is that the banks are doing the bare minimum to assuage some of their critics over charges. In Lloyds' case it has even decided to fund its generosity by reducing the interest rate it pays some of its current account holders and an introducing a £5 usage fee on authorised overdrafts – this from a bank you and I practically own. Half-hearted and sleight of hand is the only conclusion.

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