In Praise of Retirement

For my birthday last year I asked for a radio alarm clock. I find waking up to Radio 4 is far less jarring than any of the alarms I can set on my phone, so it eases me into wakefulness in a manner that allows me to be less grumpy through the day. The downside, however, is that I sometimes find myself too involved in the Today programme and have to run to work. Technology gives and it takes.

This morning I was gently awoken by the placid tones of current affairs, only to be startled out of my slumber by the news that the government is increasing the retirement age to 70. This will be the age at which people can expect to retire in 2060, so it affects those born from the 1990s onwards – as does so much of the austerity agenda. This age is not plucked out of thin air, apparently, but is derived from ONS statistics on average life expectancy, statistics that will be consulted periodically to adjust the retirement age; it’s been determined (and this does seem to be arbitrary) that a third of one’s adult life should be spent in retirement – and so we get 70.

Putting to one side the flaw of averages – that we focus on the mean and not the extreme – one might wonder at why we have to work longer and longer when technological advances are seemingly unhindered by the conditions of austerity that mere people are forced to operate under. Surely all that technology can liberate us from the sadness of work?

Bertrand Russell, in his essay In Praise of Idleness, argues that “there is far too much work done in the world” and “that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous” – and if only he had lived to have seen the strivers versus skivers rhetoric used today! Russell basically argues that, given the role of technology in production, the working day should be slashed in half so that workers could have more time given over to leisure; he also observes that the morality of work is born in a history of slavery and that the rich are unlikely to slacken the leash, indeed, are appalled that workers should have leisure as they do. He has a lovely example that I’d like to quote in full:

“Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins as before. But the world does not need twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacture of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way, it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined?”

Through advances in medical technologies we are now living, on average, longer than we did. But this is not in and of itself an argument for working longer – no such argument has been provided. Given the levels of unemployment currently in this country – and if we’re having permanent austerity then who can say when they’ll decrease? – why maintain the working lives of the employed simply because they now possess a surplus of life, over-working some whilst others remain idle because they cannot secure employment? More fundamentally, if we can replenish the workforce to pay for the pensions, what is so wrong with allowing people leisure in their later years?

“The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery” – Bertrand Russell.


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