The Pension-Work Absurdity


Large numbers of employees regard their work as unfulfilling and are eager to retire. Those whose jobs are physically demanding do not expect to be able to work beyond a certain age, and unemployed people over the age of 50 find it enormously difficult to find new employment.

Yet politicians rush to raise the pension age. They are so preoccupied with the management of an economy that they can’t find time to consider social objectives — how to assess the meaning of work, how to evaluate productive activities which are not classified as work yet have enormous social and economic value.

Economic rationalists will immediately ask, "How can we afford an ageing society?" "How will you pay for the aged pension?" "How will governments contribute to high standard care for those elderly who are unable to care for themselves?"

No one denies the importance of those questions, but they refer to economic considerations — the means to an end. They should be answered but not before consideration of the society we are attempting to build and the freedoms which all retirees could enjoy.

Freedom is the operative word, yet the mantra about the freedom of the market carries a couple of seldom acknowledged ironies. By obliging people to work until they are 70, the free marketeers promote control not freedom. An uncritical reverence for their version of the work ethic hinders the chances of giving older people that freedom and autonomy which they have looked forward to for years.

I do not mean to debunk the work ethic. It also exists in retirement.

Millions who derive little or no satisfaction in their paid work look forward to a time when they can realise an art of living which has previously eluded them. By contributing to the well-being of others — the mentoring of youth in difficulty, the care of children, of people with a disability, of the mentally ill and the frail elderly, or by giving hospitality to newly arrived refugees and other migrants — various citizens enhance their own health and fulfilment.

Such projects also enable people to experience solidarity, between individuals, between different ethnic groups, social classes and religious affiliations. These activities may not be regarded as efficient. They do not obviously deal with claims about the size of a deficit or balance of payment pressures, but they do appeal to the moral, cultural and political motivations of men and women to pursue ideals, to give new meaning to life.

Critics will say of these ideals, "You can’t count, you are economically illiterate." But policies to pay for the costs of an ageing society could also produce a more socially just one.

Two principles indicate how funds can be realised to cover the costs of living to a ripe old age. The first concerns the opportunity for individuals to save for their independence — or dependence — throughout their employment. The second refers to the need to make extra funds available by re-distributing wealth.

In his recent, ABC Television Lateline interview, Paul Keating confronted the first principle with proposals about a longevity levy to cover the costs of caring for those who live between 80 and 100. Such a levy would be coupled to an obligation for employers and employees to raise their superannuation contributions from 9 per cent to 12 per cent.

The principle to contribute to a longevity fund by re-distributing wealth could be followed by several policy initiatives. Saul Eslake, chief economist of Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, has suggested that the Abbott Government could abolish negative gearing, broaden the base of the GST, stop taxing Trusts as companies and reduce the discount on capital gains. A Federal Government could also reduce the over-generous tax concessions on superannuation, currently estimated to cost more than $34 billion, rising to well over $50 billion in 2016-17.

The reverence for the market and for an ideology about fostering individuals’ interests ignores far more than policies concerning the lives of retirees and pensioners. Treasurer Joe Hockey and his colleagues are so hooked on the idea of having the economy dominate society, so addicted to the Commission of Audit’s Darwinian notion of "competitive federalism", that they fail to ponder not only the meaning of work but also those needs which cannot be met by the market — the need for space, for clean air and water, for public transport, accident and sickness prevention, public hygiene, child care and services which heal family breakdown.

The controversy over the raising of the pension age does at least act as a cue to envision an economically viable society which could create more disposable time, not less. Such a social justice goal — and Bill Shorten should be reminded of this – prompted the birth of the labour movement.

The case for continuing to raise the pension age is thoughtless. It is possible to build a society in which the entitlement to an income is no longer reserved only for those in the paid workforce. Even a cursory examination of the diverse meanings of work shows that retirement is an essential, creative part of life and that productive work comes not only from the means of earning a living.

Emeritus Professor Stuart Rees AM is a regular New Matilda contributor, an Australian academic and author who is the founder of the Sydney Peace Foundation and Emeritus Professor at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney in Australia.