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World accepts death of pensions and the birth of flexible working.

As newly-appointed David Blunkett and Sir Malcolm Rifkind read themselves in, preparing to do battle over pensions - arguably the most intractable issue in politics today - they could do worse than glance at a survey for HSBC, which modestly describes it as 'the world's most comprehensive study on global attitudes to ageing and retirement'.

'The world's local bank' has lived up to its slogan by asking the same questions in ten seemingly different nations and territories.

This established a growing awareness almost everywhere that pensions as we have understood them in the developed West are ceasing to be a realistic prospect in a world of ageing populations.

In six of the ten societies a majority - 75 per cent of all respondents - saw a mix of work and leisure as the ideal for a 'later lifestyle'. India and the UK are the most sceptical about flexible working for oldies - doubtless for very different reasons. But even in these two societies, a quarter of those questioned said they would like to do some work in their later years.

This is a finding for politicians of any colour to take on board. A couple of months ago, the Blair Government aired a plan to raise the pension age for civil servants to 65. This provoked the threat of a strike in the middle of the election, so the Government panicked and gave up without any discernible argument.

The message from this survey is that somebody should try again. Faced with the alternatives - higher taxes or lower pensions - a clear plurality preferred retiring later. Forty-five per cent were for raising the retirement age, 26 per cent for higher taxes and just 15 per cent for the the way we are heading, smaller pensions.

In Britain, to judge from the overwhelming and almost instant support the civil service unions mustered, one might suppose that a great deal more than 26 per cent would go for higher taxes, possibly coupled with stiffer pension contributions.

But this survey has a very different message. It is not an axiomatic human response. In every country those in the happy position of a British civil servant looking forward to a Government-guaranteed, inflation-linked pension, or anything like it, are small minority. Canada comes out as the country best prepared for retirement. But only 24 per cent of the Canadians told the HSBC survey that they equate later life with financial independence. The rest just cannot bring themselves to believe in pensions.

So far though, there is no mad rush to work till you drop in the job you have done in most of your working life. According to HSBC, the average global retiring age last year was 58. And those not yet retired expect to leave their main occupation at 59.

Quite apart from the economics of pensions, that will have to change for social reasons in many countries. According to the United Nations, the median age of the British population in 35 years' time will be 44. It will be 53 in Japan.
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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:May 11, 2005
Words:502
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