New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English got into a spot of trouble over the past few days when he stuffed up some television interviews with a non-committal approach towards the retirement age*. In what comes across as an act of political desperation, English announced that he would pass legislation post-election to implement a rise in the retirement age from 65 to 67 in 2037. I have some misgivings about the policy. It is weak. The retirement age is political poison, English attempts to minimise the blow by putting it ahead so far away. It indicates that he has no confidence in his ability to lead this issue (to be fair, I also have no confidence in his ability too).
Here is my position on the retirement age. It should stay at 65. Here are some reasons:
- Automation. As a society, increasing amount of work can be performed without human involvement. A low-ish eligibility for superannuation will incentivise older workers to retire, creating opportunities for younger people.
- Ageism. Talk to anyone who has lost their job who is over-50. They’ll tell you it’s tough to find more work. From territorial management types who don’t want to be shown up by more capable and experienced staff to crude assumptions about one’s digital proficiency, there are a lot of barriers to re-employment for older people. Pushing up the retirement age just exacerbates this issue. Whats the point of keeping 60-somethings miserable while giving them unemployment payments? Just give them super instead.
- Social contract. Simply put: pay your taxes now, which we’ll use to support others now and we’ll see that you get the same support when you retire. Of course, the social contract has already been violated with GST, student loans, previous rises in the eligibility age, tax cuts for the wealthy. The answer is to restore the social contract, not to keep breaking it.
- One-size doesn’t fit all. All this talk about age increases is framed from a white-centric, managerial class point of view i.e. that of the most privileged in society. The needs of those in manual work or those belonging to ethnic groups with a lower life expectancy (due to structural inequalities in society) are often ignored. On this point, I have warmed to Peter Dunne’s idea of a variable age with adjusted payments. You can read the discussion document here, with a rather amusing foreword by none other than Bill English himself! However, I don’t see the need to reduce payments for those who need to retire earlier because of the nature of their work or because of societal issues beyond the control of individuals.
- Running out the clock. I once interned at an organisation whose name I won’t reveal. The group leader was in their early 60s and it was clear that they were really just waiting to become eligible for NZ super so that they wouldn’t need to bother turning up to work. Raising the retirement age would mean such people hang around for longer while not doing much work which is harmful to interpersonal dynamics and for business productivity.
I disliked English before he announced his plans, all this means is I dislike him even more. Stoking the flames of generational warfare helps rally the generally older National voters, this policy is designed to do exactly that. The timing of the age rise is curious. Far away enough that the current-day elderly will be dead and won’t care and that younger people won’t be looking far enough ahead. It won’t even affect my parents in their early 50s. This is an implicit concession by National that it is an unpopular idea. But hey, it kicks in after you retire so who cares?
Having a defeatist outlook means that I suspect many NZ voters will think exactly along these lines. It is also a test to see how wedded Winston Peters and New Zealand First are to 65. I hope Peters and NZF take a solidarity type approach and reject any change to the age of eligibility. Fortunately, Peters has shown some of his trademark intransigence and has denounced English’s proposal. National improved their outlook for a coalition with NZF if needed following Key’s surrender. Now they have made a coalition which will almost be a necessity to stay in government post election much less likely.
The stuff.co.nz self-selecting poll is scary. 70-30 in favour of hiking up the age. Some of the person-on-the-street interviews don’t hold much hope either. The obsequious younger people that were interviewed have swallowed the neoliberal nonsense about a rising age being sensible and inevitable.
The media response from some circles is infuriating. The anonymous Press editorial praised English for “starting a discussion”. Jesus fuck, the editorial writer is either 5 years old or has dementia. Labour proposed the exact same thing in 2011 and held on to it for the disastrous 2014 election (the self-selecting poll from 2013 is interesting at 50-50). Don’t praise National for something they didn’t do, your bias is showing.
I was trying to see if the MSM criticised Labour for this policy, but it looks like they selectively praised Labour at the time as part of appearing “fair and balanced”. So at least they’re consistent in shilling for neoliberal talking points.
So what’s my solution? I’ve already made some noises about unconditional incomes and NZ super is an unconditional income for everyone over a certain age. Rather than trying to limit it, we should seek to expand it as part of restoring the social contract. Perhaps Dunne’s variable payment mode could be further stretched in order to make such an initiative more palatable to the hard-of-thinking. Also, wealthy people and corporations should pay more tax in order to fund government services. If National were as courageous as their media poodles insisted, then they would propose something like this instead of promising to inflict more damage onto New Zealand.
*Note. “retirement age” is synonymous with increasing the age of eligibility for NZ superannuation payments, which is the actual subject under discussion.