Retired early and wondering what to do? How about fighting for the rest of us?
‘Where have all the workers gone?” asked a House of Lords report last month. The title evokes an image of peers looking around crossly for the 565,000 missing economically active people in much the same way I do for my nail clippers, but actually, the report is perfectly sensible and interesting. It covers Brexit and ill-health, but the trend that emerges most strongly is a reversal of the previous long-term one: people in the 50-to-64 age bracket are leaving the labour market. Spin the wheel of over-analysed work microtrends and you might not have expected to land on “silver quitting” (another report went for “the great retirement”, less catchily), but a growing body of evidence suggests that is exactly what has happened in Britain.
Why? It doesn’t look, from the research, as if it’s a question of ill-health or that they were pushed out; rather, it’s mainly “a lifestyle choice”. “These people express no desire to work and do not expect to work again” as the lords put it. That “great retirement” report, from the longer-life thinktank Phoenix Insights, also found “the main reason people in the UK were leaving the workforce was because they no longer wanted to work”. Predictably, it’s middle and higher earners, and two-thirds are mortgage-free; you need financial security to make that kind of lifestyle choice.
“Experiments with a different lifestyle during the pandemic meant that people learnt more about their preferences for retirement versus work,” the House of Lords theorised. That dovetails with the Phoenix finding that the percentage of those saying they just don’t fancy it any more has increased since the pandemic. So, thanks to Covid, a specific slice of the population got an existential shock and a taste of how nice solvent retirement could be, gathered their colleagues around a Colin the Caterpillar cake, took the John Lewis vouchers and ran. Does that mean my late-40s cohort takes on “oldest person in the workplace” responsibilities? Have they left handover notes? We are way too tired for wisdom.
It comes against a backdrop of panicky, cash-strapped governments worldwide trying to get us to work longer. Reports last week suggested that the UK state pension age could rise to 68 sooner than planned. I doubt we would even react – if we aren’t on the streets for public-sector pay, corruption or 200 missing asylum-seeking children, this surely wouldn’t fire us up. Compare and contrast with France, where Macron’s proposal to raise the retirement age to 64 triggered epic protests.
Work can be great: the majority of silver quitters said they liked their jobs, but equally a word cloud of their thoughts on work read: “Boring tiring stress necessary MONEY”. Yes. Nothing is going right with mine recently: I’ve got the shakes, I’m eating like an urban gull, exercising only by running for trains and socialising – if you can call it that – solely through the medium of expletive-strewn WhatsApps. And my job is one of the easy ones. I love what I do, but it gave me pause to read research from China that suggested eating well, seeing friends twice a week and exercising regularly may slow the rate of memory decline and reduce the risk of dementia. We all deserve the opportunity not to work while we’re still capable of enjoying it.
This early-retirement phenomenon is the product of one-off demographic good fortune – younger people don’t have the assets and governments aren’t planning to let us pack it all in – which leaves a lucky bunch of 50-to-64-year-old unicorns cantering off into the sunset. Good for them for not doing what it was assumed they would do and working until they dropped. And how admirable to take the life lessons of Covid and act upon them: run free, unicorns. But if we don’t benefit from your taxes now, and you have more time on your hands, here is a suggestion. How about using some of that new freedom and energy to take a crash course in protest techniques, then come and man the barricades to help everyone else enjoy a bit of what you’re having?
• Emma Beddington is a Guardian columnist