Enforced retirement is a great iniquity, in those countries where it exists. This is true of any attempt by the powers that be to thrust their idea of how a life should be lived onto tens of millions of people, all capable of making their own choices. Progress in medicine has for decades created longer, healthy lives, a slow upward trend that will accelerate now that the research community is earnestly attempting to treat the causes of aging. Those parts of the state concerned with ordering society, work, and finance at scale move far less rapidly. Much of the ink spilled on the topics of demographic aging, retirement, pensions, and economic consequences is a witness to the collision between (a) the reality of progress, the attempt to build a better world, and (b) the static vision of central planners who have no such beneficial goal in mind.
Although there is much debate about the age of retirement, already retirement itself is a decreasingly shared key labour market transition whereby work comes to a sudden stop at a specific age. As people work longer, the age at which they stop work varies, unretiring (ie, returning to the labour force after retirement) becomes increasingly common, people switch to part-time rather than full-time work, or engage in caring or broader social activities. As a result, older workers are characterised by increased diversity. This variety applies not only to employment, but also to health, education, and a broad range of socioeconomic factors. As a consequence, chronological age plays a declining role in defining a common set of problems among older workers; labour market policies need to focus less on age and more on worker characteristics, as is already the case for younger groups.
A focus on retirement age distracts from the importance of maintaining employment from age 50 years or older. In the UK, labour force participation is 85% for people aged 50-54 years, but falls to 58% at age 60-64 years and to 23% at age 65-69 years. Withdrawal from the labour market starts well before state pension age. If a longevity economy is to be achieved, supporting employment among people aged 50 years or older will be key.
Although improving the health and education of older workers will boost their productivity, this will count for little if employers believe that older workers are not productive. Evidence about the productivity of older workers is varied and often ambiguous, and varies substantially between sectors. Put simply, age does not seem to be as important a determinant of productivity as employers assume. This corporate ageism is a problem because it makes older workers more likely to lose their jobs and less likely to be hired than their younger counterparts, which contributes to the decline in employment before retirement age. In the face of such corporate ageism, there is a growing trend of older workers moving into the contingent economy (eg, part-time, gig economy, or contract work) and entrepreneurship. In the UK, over 40% of working people aged 65 years or older are self-employed, which is much higher than for any other age group.
Supporting a longevity economy will require legislation to tackle age discrimination, but social shifts and economic incentives will also be important. For instance, social perceptions about the productivity of older workers will change in response to new cohorts of older workers who have more education and better health than in previous waves. Also, shrinking populations will result in fewer younger workers, which will persuade some employers to be increasingly interested in older workers. Similarly, an ageing consumer base and the ability of technology and robotics to sustain people's productivity will increase the appeal of older workers.