We need a radically different system based on needs that works for pensioners and young people alike, argues Reuben Bard-Rosenberg
We are not in fact heading towards a society in which everybody works until they drop. Rather we are moving towards a fairly brutal, two-tier system in which people experience fundamentally different life cycles. The best-off will continue to retire when they always have, and the worst-off will work to an ever-older age and then continue to die younger than their wealthier counterparts. I suspect that many in the middle will face a stark choice between pensions and procreation. This is being justified by assertions that even the provision that exists today is "unsustainable".
If the left is to respond effectively, then we first need to move beyond the ideological compromises of the 1940s. National Insurance - that irritating addendum to the system of income tax - symbolises a social fiction. Provision for unemployment and old age was historically justified as a sort of public insurance system wherein people put money into a pot and took their pension out of it at the end.
The reality is, of course, nothing of the sort. Any decent society that wants to sustain people in old age needs to fund that through its present economic output. In Britain right now this happens through a mixture of things: a minimal state pension, a public health care system, dividends on stocks, and buy-to-let (it is worth noting that in the North the social profile of retired buy-to-let landlords is somewhat different to what it is in the south). As far as the latter is concerned, the security of some retired people is paid for via the extreme insecurity of people in their 20s and 30s. The real estate market is fulfilling a function that could be carried out far more sensibly by government.
So the conversation we need to be having is not about whether health care / social care / pensions are sustainable. Rather it is this: we're all living longer, which is great, but we as a society need to decide how much we are going to pay for the universal social needs that arise from this, and what form that payment takes. How about we reallocate a few extra percentage points of GDP towards meeting these growing needs, and in return, we crackdown on the profitability of buy-to-let, and consequently the expense and insecurity that is incurred by young workers. In short, how about we have a system that revolves around meeting needs rather than a system that depends upon instrumentalising greed.
Reuben Bard-Rosenberg is a socialist activist and radical folk music promoter.
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