Not retiring: Hidden pensioner poverty

Pensioner poverty – current and future – is much in the news and linked to economic inactivity. What are the long-term costs of not addressing it?



There has been a lot this week about poverty among older people. A new report says the UK is facing a hidden poverty crisis among 60 to 65-year-olds. It cites figures showing a quarter of people aged 60 to 65 live in poverty – the highest poverty rate for any adult age group. The Fabian Society report, When I’m 64, calls for long-term action targeting people at every stage of working life, from social security and health to lifelong learning, but also for short-term interventions to help over 55s stay in or return to work or better support people who cannot work.

There are many reasons for rising concerns about pensioner poverty, including health issues and poor quality work. Figures out this week show the economic inactivity has risen further. According to the Office for National Statistics both unemployment and economic inactivity are up, with the number of people off work due to long and short term illness having broken through three million for the first time.

Yet another report, this time from the Heath Foundation, projects that the number of working-age adults living with a major illness is likely to rise steeply – up from 3 million to 3.7 million by 2040, with disadvantaged regions facing the brunt of the problem.

And a report from the Resolution Foundation into Universal Credit says the benefit is designed for the labour market problems of the past, not the present and future. It says that, although ‘making work pay’ may have been the right focus for the problems of high unemployment and worklessness in the early 2010s, it is not the right approach for Britain today due to the large drop in unemployment since 2011 and fast rising levels of economic inactivity due to ill health – almost double the rate they were when UC was first introduced.

Again the prescription is to provide more employment support to help those with health issues stay in work, but also to address the work-based problems – poor quality, insecure and low paid work – that can give rise to longer term health issues as people age.

But while employers can help address some of these, a more holistic approach is needed that tackles things like housing, access to affordable healthy food, health service waiting lists and inequality generally. The Government is giving mixed messages, although lately the direction of travel has been much more stick than carrot. On the one hand it talks about support to help the sick back to work and on the other suggests that many may not be really that sick at all, issues threats to carers who may have mistakenly gone over the benefits threshold, talks about tighter rules on sickness benefits and is proposing that specialist work and health teams might replace GPs when it comes to assessing fitness to work with the aim of keeping people in work.

We know that many people, including working people, are cutting back on meals and heating. The long-term impact of this on their health in later life is unknown as yet, but will surely be significant. The cost of all of this needs to be factored in when considering what might help, for instance, increases in Universal Credit payments.Otherwise, we will be in an even more troubling labour market position in the next decades.

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