When our democracies were set up, there was one thing that was never anticipated: medical advances leading to a white-haired horde of pensioners that held the balance of power in almost every single election. We’re essentially living in a gerontocracy now, and there’s no giant ice floe to push them out onto. This article looks at a potential compromise for our society.
Life expectancy in New Zealand was about 71 years in 1960, which meant that the average person was only expected to live a handful of years once they went on the pension at age 65. When the pension was brought in, in 1898, it was obviously much less than even this.
Life expectancy was over 81 years in 2015, and it keeps climbing as medical advances and social changes like the decline in tobacco smoking prevent what had until recently been incurable diseases. This has led to a problem arising: New Zealand now spends over $12,000,000,000 per year on pension payments, as the average person now lives a dozen years or more extra past the pension age, which has not increased.
The reason why the age of 65 was usually chosen as the age of universal pension was that, by age 65, a person’s body is usually no longer capable of the physical labour necessary to earn a full wage. The wear and tear of life as a working man meant that a full effort was no longer possible from age 65 and, because the vast majority of jobs going around were working-class ones, it was a reliable rule of thumb that most people would be knackered by then.
But if we now live in a knowledge economy, as many politicians and economists are now insisting we do, then the original reason for setting the pension age at 65 is null and void. If we live in an economy where a person’s productivity is primarily a function of their intellectual capabilities then there’s no reason to have a pension age determined by the limitations of the physical body, because there is no need to treat mentally productive people as infirm.
It might be that a person’s intellectual capabilities are not enough to keep them in employment either. Perhaps that person traded on the strength of their body and, for whatever reason, their mind was not developed to the point where participation in a knowledge economy was possible. Such a person should still have the right to a pension.
But the unfairness arises when a person who is still more than capable of earning a living from their mind does so, at the same time as pocketing a $370 a week pension that was intended specifically for people incapable of working. Winston Peters has shown that even a career as intellectually demanding as top-level politics can be undertaken until one’s mid-70s, and yet if he retires in 2020 he will have claimed the pension for ten years while still working full time.
This is really a gigantic con game, in which the elderly have forced payment for their unsustainably lavish lifestyles on the young. Worse, the larger this 65+ age bracket grows, the ever more incentivised they are to vote against any reform to this Ponzi scheme.
Democracy was never intended to have this massive bulk of old voters gumming it up. Once a person is at this stage, they have relatively little stake left in the future running of the country. No major decisions need be taken by such people – they’re already sorted.
Perhaps our old people need to have a deal put to them?
If you reach 65 and feel that you are no longer intellectually capable of participating in the knowledge economy, that’s fine. Here’s a pension – but you are no longer considered intellectually capable of participating in representative democracy.
If you want to keep working on the grounds that you’re entirely capable of it still, you can – and you get to vote as well. But you don’t get to claim a pension on the grounds that you’re too infirm to participate and still get to wield power over others.
We can accept that, for some people, the fair price to pay for being looked after until death is to forfeit their right to further influence the political system in their favour. After all, if you have a political class that pays you $370 a week no questions asked, when you almost certainly own your own home already and don’t have to pay rent out of it, you’re already creaming it by any measure. Life is sweet and easy at that point.
It’s time to stop the Baby Boomers’ theft of the production of the following generations. Taking the right to vote away from pensioners will make it possible for a fairer balance of taxation and benefits to be struck.