Growing Old, Growing Old

We look at the way the older generation fare under capitalism, with poverty dominating the lives of so many.

A recent report by the Intergenerational Foundation pointed out how badly young people have fared over the last five years or so (Guardian Online, 11 July). The ‘living wage’ in Osborne’s budget, for instance, will not apply to those under 25, and people under 21 will no longer automatically be entitled to housing benefit. The cost of getting a university degree is sky-rocketing, and the relatively small number of houses being built is a crucial reason why so many young people have little chance of buying their own homes. At the same time, people are living longer and the number of those over 65 is increasing, so the younger generation are supposedly being forced to pay for the pensions and other benefits of the elderly.

Setting one group of workers against another is a standard capitalist tactic to divert attention away from the real clash of interest in society, that between the tiny class of people who own the means of production and distribution and the rest of us. If workers’ anger and resentment can be channelled towards immigrants or welfare scroungers or strikers, they are far less likely to hold the social system responsible for their problems. We are not saying that it is explicitly intended this way, but it fits into this whole paradigm to claim that the elderly are doing very nicely, while the young are in many cases mired in poverty with few prospects.

For the elderly suffer greatly under capitalism too. While there are retired workers who live reasonably on a workplace pension (having paid into it for thirty-odd years, mind), there are more who struggle to get by on the state pension and experience loneliness, isolation and poor health. The state currently pays a maximum of just £115.95 per week before tax, though there will be changes from April next year.

Back in 2002 a report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that redundancy or early retirement could have a devastating influence on how people fared in old age. This applied particularly to men who worked for fewer than five years in their fifties and who worked in jobs such as clerical or sales staff. Many of these were among the lowest-paid and also their employment was the most precarious. Things will hardly have changed for the better since then.

According to Age UK, just over a million people have a care need – perhaps as basic as assistance getting out of bed – but receive no help from the state or other agencies. Government funding for local councils’ adult care budgets has been cut by a third since 2005–06, and further cuts are in the pipeline. These ‘savings’ may result in increased pressure on the NHS, as more elderly people go to hospital for emergency care. The government has now announced that it will not after all introduce rules to cap care costs, which means many elderly people will have to sell their homes in order to pay for care.

Towards the end of last year, Age UK reported that 1.6 million pensioners are living below the poverty line; many are entitled to extra state benefits but do not claim, whether through ignorance or pride. Bus passes and free medical prescriptions do not make up for this kind of suffering. In 2011 they produced a report Living on a low income in later life, which noted, for instance, that many people ‘went without holidays, stopped going out, did not replace household goods, and some took drastic action to reduce their heating and energy costs.’

One appalling indication of the extent of poverty among the elderly and their families is the rise in pauper’s funerals, or public health funerals, to give them their official and less unsettling name (Guardian Online, 20 October 2014). The state funeral grant is means-tested and is just £700; with the average funeral costing around £4,000, many people cannot afford that or have to go to pay-day lenders to pay for a loved one’s funeral. It’s all very well saying that people can take out insurance, but frankly people don’t, as this is hardly a priority for someone who is struggling to make ends meet anyway. Around one in seven have trouble meeting the costs of a funeral, and a pauper’s funeral is the last resort for those who have no family or whose relatives are too poor.

The background is that all this care for the elderly costs the capitalist class, via the state, money. There were fewer than seven million pensioners in 1951, over ten million in 1992 and over twelve million now, with around six per cent of GDP paid out as state pensions. People are simply living longer, thus drawing their pensions for longer. One person in six is over sixty-five, and there are more pensioners than children under sixteen. One response has been to increase the state pension age: the 1995 Pensions Act meant that the pension age for women would increase gradually from sixty to (if you were born in March 1953) sixty-three. More recent acts speeded up this increase, and the traditional pension age of sixty-five will also be scrapped, so that anyone born after 6 March 1961 will have to be sixty-seven before they qualify for a state pension. So the wage slavery of employment will last longer in future (provided you can get a job at all). And even receiving a pension may not mean the end of working: in 2011, 1.4 million people above the pension age were still working, primarily on grounds of poverty (up from 750,000 in 1993).

Moreover, increases to non-state pensions have since 2010 been based on the Consumer Price Index (CPI), not the Retail Price Index (RPI). These both measure the ups and downs of prices but, because of subtleties in the way the two indices are calculated, CPI is generally lower than RPI. As a result, pensioners are likely to lose out substantially over a period of several years. And final-salary pension schemes are becoming rarer, so the basis for calculating what a works pension will be worth is being reduced.

So it seems that, while the younger generation struggle with benefits, pay, education and housing, the elderly encounter comparable problems, of low incomes, poor health, choosing between eating and heating, isolation and loneliness. Traditional societies valued older people as a store of knowledge and experience, but under capitalism the elderly are seen as little more than unpaid child-minders for grandkids, and as a burden to be looked after as cheaply as possible.      

Paul Bennett

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