No Old Person Left Behind?

"Time is on my side" claims Sir Michael Philip Jagger, 71
“Time is on my side”, explains Sir Michael Philip Jagger, 71

Today is the UN International Day of Older Persons and the theme this year is “Leaving No-One Behind: Promoting a Society for All”. Monika Queisser, head of the Social Policy Division in the OECD’s Employment, Labour and Social Affairs Directorate, argues that the best policy for older people must focus on the young.

What will matter to you in old age? A healthy body and mind, above all. But also a comfortable home in a nice place to live. Family and friends close by. And enough money to benefit from all those good things in life, like travel, books, movies and museums and the other pleasures one never has enough time to enjoy while working and bringing up a family.

Chances are that if you were fortunate enough to get good education and the skills you needed, and if you found and kept a good job, both in terms of pay and working conditions, your life in retirement will be pleasant. Even if you need long-term care and personal help, you are likely to have access to good quality services because you are insured and you can pay for them.

But what about those among us who had a less fortunate start to their working lives, who lost their jobs once or more during their active years, who worked part-time and were paid little, who had physically demanding jobs taking a toll on their health? For all these people, retirement and old age risks being much less enjoyable.

OECD data from Pensions at a Glance 2013 show that today, the majority of pensioners enjoy as good living standards as the average population. Of course, this is not the case for everybody, but at the moment, elderly groups are the least unequal part of the population. This is not surprising: most of today’s retirees, at least men, have worked all their lives in stable jobs. However, a “job for life” and even a “career for life” are rare commodities for people starting out today. These future retirees will be a much more diverse group, some will have experienced long spells of unemployment and low wages, while others continue to enjoy stability and higher earnings. Capital income, such as interest from savings, shares and other investments, is more concentrated and the gap between high earners and low earners is widening.

Poorer people are also less healthy and die younger than rich people. Many of the future elderly may move into older ages with disabilities, in bad health, and a limited ability to keep working and contributing to society. The experience of old age for today’s younger generations could change dramatically compared to their parents, with improved living standards and a longer life for some, and a shorter, sicker and more poverty-ridden life for others.

Society should tackle increasing inequality as populations age. Apart from a moral imperative not to leave older persons by the wayside, there are also hard economic reasons why letting unequal ageing happen is bad policy. A growing divide in the well-being of older people will increase the stress on social protection. And it will jeopardize the effectiveness of recent reforms of labour markets, pension and long-term care systems. Governments could make substantial savings if income, wealth and health inequalities were picked up earlier and tackled as they occur.

Today’s young people are the older people of tomorrow. The best policy for older persons is a policy that addresses problems when they start. Asking social protection and health systems to fix the situation late in life is not the best option – systems are ill-equipped to compensate for everything that went wrong during a working life if they wait until the problems have accumulated. Identifying and tackling risks as they arise will enable governments to design sustainable and cost-effective policy approaches towards demographic ageing.

Youth unemployment is at record levels today in many OECD countries. This could have long-term consequences for young people’s future careers and well-being at all ages, including in old age. We need to give young people the best chances to realise their full potential. We need to rethink our systems of social protection to accompany people throughout their increasingly diverse life courses and thus make retirement a well-earned reward.

Useful links

OECD Action Plan for youth

OECD work on ageing and employment

Chapter 8 of OECD’s Health at a Glance 2013 is on Ageing and Long-term Care

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