A Uniform Retirement Age?
I have been shifting my focus in the last few weeks from policies that encourage skilled immigration to another set of policies that respond to the problem of population ageing. Unlike policies aimed at encouraging skilled immigration, which aim to adjust the dependency ratio by increasing the number of workers in the economy, this other set of policies adjusts the dependency ratio by encouraging the same number of people to do more work on aggregate. There are several ways in which this can be done. One way is by encouraging higher rates of participation in the labour market – especially amongst women. But the suggestion I am currently interested in focuses on the different idea that we should raise the retirement age. Raising the retirement age simultaneously reduces the number of dependent elderly and increases the amount of work that is done in the economy. So it is a potentially very effective response to population ageing.
A key ethical question we need to address in considering the retirement age is whether it is should be uniform across all sectors of industry (or income levels) or whether it is more reasonable to allow some variation in the retirement age. In the next couple of weeks, I will be considering this question in some detail. In particular, I want to determine whether the following argument (or kind of argument) for variation in retirement age is promising. Differences between individuals in the number of funded post-retirement years they can enjoy are morally significant and raise concerns of justice when they result from factors beyond the control of these individuals. Depending on their social and class background some individuals have shorter life expectancy than others. A uniform retirement age would therefore have the consequence that some individuals would enjoy fewer post-retirement years than others. Assuming that social and class differences between individuals aren’t attributable to factors for which they are themselves entirely responsible, this inequality in post-retirement year may well be unjust. We should therefore reject a uniform retirement age and instead adjust the retirement according to social and class background.
While this argument has some appeal, I am not entirely comfortable with it. One concern one might have with it is that it may be stigmatising to base retirement age on social and class background. Do we really want a retirement system that sends the following message to (some) citizens: "You have had a harsher life than others due to your social and class background, and you are likely to die sooner than others: you therefore deserve to retire earlier than them." I am not so sure about that. But on the other hand, I do think that it is unfair that some people have to work for larger proportions of their lives than others due factors beyond their control. So I need to think about whether there is a non-stigmatising way of introducing variation in the retirement age.