Not retiring: what if life expectancy falls?

A report out this week suggests health issues in older workers and others are holding the UK back, but we are building future policy on the basis of growing life expectancy. Does that model need to adapt to the fact that longevity may increase for some, but not for all?

Woman leaning against a wall looks out into the distance thoughtfully. She is wearing a green top


A PwC report out this week has highlighted the UK’s poor performance, compared with other G7 countries, when it comes to retaining older workers. In large part this is due to health problems. It cites figures from the Office for National Statistics which show that a third of over-50s who quit their job during the pandemic are on NHS waiting lists.

In the midst of more strikes by junior doctors in England, it’s clear that our inability to tackle health and social care infrastructure is holding back economic growth, in addition to the human problems it is causing.

One wonders what the impact will be on longevity. We already see that the UK’s life expectancy rates have been rising more slowly than those for comparable other countries over recent decades. A recent study published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine shows the UK lags behind all other countries in the group of G7 advanced economies except the US.

And the situation seems to have got worse in recent times, with longevity trends going into reverse among some populations as inequality increases. An Imperial College study found a substantial number of English communities experienced a decline in life expectancy from 2010-2019.  Covid has made this worse.

Yet the state pension age keeps rising – in large part due to projections of greater longevity. But longevity levels are different depending on a number of different factors, with wealth being key. The PwC report talks about the health impact in different regions and finds significant regional variation in the employment rate of older workers in the UK, ranging from around 57% in the North East of England, to 68% in the South East. It says this may be in part due to the type of work available in different areas, with desk-based work more prevalent in the South East.

What is more worrying in the PwC report is that it is not people over 50 who seem to be suffering the most from long-term sickness. The 35-44 age group leads, followed by the 55-64 and 65+ age groups. PwC says this means health-related concerns and issues “are holding back both the current and future generation of golden age workers”. Much of the problems are related to mental wellbeing, with the 35+ year olds, particularly those with young families, bearing the brunt of interest rate and inflation rises.

In a world of fast-paced scientific and technological innovation, we are encouraged to think that we are always moving forwards, but the last decade or so suggests that that is not a given and that perhaps we need to prepare for a range of different outcomes and different options in old age and have enough of a safety net in place to ensure significant numbers of people don’t end their days in poverty.

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