The unwelcome reason why the government did not increase pension age

·4-min read
The retirement age is set to rise to 67. (PA)
The retirement age is set to rise to 67. (PA)

The government has delayed a plan to raise the state pension age to 68, but the reason given is not good news.

Growing life expectancy in the UK has been slowing for more than a decade and in recent years it has been falling.

Although COVID has been pointed to as the reason for the start of the fall, officials still are unsure if it will recover to pre-pandemic levels quickly.

The government announced on Thursday the rise in state pension age from 67 to 68 should take place between 2041 and 2043, four years later than previously planned.

Because of this, the government put off making the final decision until after the next election.

Making a statement in the Commons, work and pensions secretary Mel Stride said the "rapid rises in life expectancy seen over the last century have slowed over the last decade", adding this is a trend seen all over the world.

Although life expectancy growth has slowed across the world, many comparable nations have still outpaced the UK.

According to research published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine earlier in March, in the past 70 years the UK has gone from being ranked seventh globally in life expectancy to 29th.

Watch: Is a UK state pension enough to survive on in retirement?

Read more: State pension: How does the UK retirement age compare to Europe?

During the pandemic, the UK also suffered a far steeper drop in life expectancy than most of its European neighbours.

Stride also said in his statement: "Life expectancy is still projected to improve over time, but compared to the last state pension review, these improvements are expected to be achieved at a slower rate."

Although Labour welcomed the delay, they attacked the government for falling life expectancy.

Shadow work and pensions secretary Jonathan Ashworth told the Commons: "Today’s announcement that they are not going ahead with accelerating the state pension age is welcome, and it is the right one.

Many are scared they will have to work for longer before they can retire. (PA)
Many are scared they will have to work for longer before they can retire. (PA)

“But it is the clearest admission yet that a rising tide of poverty is dragging life expectancy down for so many, and stalling life expectancy, going backwards in some of the poorest communities, is a damning indictment of 13 years of failure which the minister should have acknowledged and apologised for today."

Sir Steve Webb, a former pensions minister, told the Financial Times: “The improvement in life expectancy at retirement that was predicted at the time of the last [pension age] review, basically didn’t happen.

"Life expectancy at retirement now is two years shorter than it was when they did the last review.”

Why has the life expectancy in the UK fallen?

Since the middle of the 19th century life expectancy in the UK has doubled, but since 2010 the upward trend has slowed and since 2020 it has been falling.

In 2019 life expectancy in England was 79.9 years for men and 83.6 years for women.

But the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 saw the first significant drop in life expectancy since the Second World War dropping to 78.6 years for men and 82.6 for women – similar to what they were in 2010.

The impact of COVID on life expectancy is still being debated by statisticians and it is likely the complete picture will not be known for many years after the end of the pandemic.

Although it is several years since the height of the pandemic the data is still being impacted by it making immediate conclusions for 2021 and 2022 hard to draw.

Life expectancy in the UK has fallen behind its peers. (Our World In Date)
Life expectancy in the UK has fallen behind its peers. (Our World In Data)

One reason is that because COVID impacted the eldest the most many people who would have been expected to die in 2021 or 2022 died in 2020.

This means mortality rates in 2021 and 2022 were the lowest in more than a decade, but statisticians have warned this is an anomaly that will be corrected in time.

Some predict life expectancy will quickly recover following the end of the pandemic but others point to growing inequality exasperated by the pandemic and cost-of-living crisis as a reason why it could remain stalled.

Inequality remains one of the biggest determining factors of life expectancy in the UK; between 2018–20 people in the least deprived 10% of areas in England could expect to live 8-10 years longer than those in the 10% most deprived areas.

This gap rose during the pandemic to 8.6-10.4 years.