Reading a recent news item here on Management-Issues - Age is the new battle ground - suggesting that age is rapidly becoming Britain's main workplace discrimination battleground has impelled me to set down a few thoughts on the economic and cultural value of life-long earning.
Here in the UK, the unique blip in the history of work which allowed for regular employment until the age of sixty five began in 1948. Before that, regular unemployment was the norm, causing many to die penniless on the street or at best in the work house.
The state pension scheme for men (and until 30 years ago pensions were only given to men) was first set up in the UK after the second world war when the average man's life expectancy was sixty eight. Devisors of the scheme anticipated few if any retirees receiving funding for more than ten years!
The slogan "Work or Want" which accompanied this new benefit was easy to dictate in 1948 because there was work to be had. And it remained possible for those who joined a workplace at the same time the pension scheme was introduced, to remain in employment until they were sixty five.
Those entering the world of work little more than ten years later, however, discovered they were being made redundant by the time they were fifty. The unique blip, it seemed, was over.
World governments and employers are currently in despair. A system, based on a blip, has set up expectations that have become impossible to realise. The average life expectancy for men - now 78 – is forecast to rise to 83 by 2012 and women do even better on the longevity scale of the demographic register.
That the ability to earn should be a lifelong right is something that all of us - employees, governments and employers alike - are going to have to get our heads round.
Governments and employers wouldn't need to be so despondent if employees were offered sabbaticals throughout their working lives in lieu of late pensions or if they put capital into fostering achievement in late adulthood so that a new labour force, able to stimulate its own wealth generation, could be created.
If this were the case, it would also make economic sense to allow men and women who have arrived at the age of thirty-five or forty to become doctors, lawyers, architects - or members of any profession that requires lengthy training. The argument against funding late trainees has always been that the newly trained would be unable to put a sufficient number of years into their chosen profession to recoup the investment. But that argument becomes redundant if pensions aren't going to kick in until people are in their late seventies.
The possibilities for life-long earning are many and various and should be worked out in consultation with the population at large. But to my way of thinking, it can only be of benefit to society to have 'with it' older people working as the norm alongside younger colleagues who will then see for themselves that being old is not synonymous with being 'past it and realise that their own future paths do not have to be down hill all the way once some arbitrary date is reached.
I'm with Longfellow in believing that " Age is opportunity no less than youth itself - though in another dress…" and see the greatest and best opportunity coming from the incalculable saving in human and financial costs when dementia gets swept away in the upsurge of vitality that purposeful and ongoing involvement in life, throughout life, will engender.