Jeremy Paxman

Jeremy Paxman

“There needs to be a measure of judgement and fairness in retirement”

As some pensioners struggle to make ends meet, while others live the good life thanks to a huge retirement fund, our columnist Jeremy Paxman believes it’s time to level up.

‘The great thing about retirement,’ said a friend a few days ago, ‘is that you don’t have to give a flying fig about the rat race any longer.’ (Actually, he used a stronger word than fig, which began with the same letter but had an additional character.) And I like fig, or more accurately figs, however hard they may be to grow in an English garden. I have twice tried – and twice failed – to cultivate a successful crop, each time losing the race to the wasps. As a metaphor for working life, one could do worse than a fig.

Ever since ‘the melancholy Jaques’ banged on about the Seven Ages of Man in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, humankind has endeavoured to categorise the different stages of life – from drooling infancy through to drooling old age, with a possible crisis around the midway point (though my children inform me there is now such a thing as a quarter-life crisis, which seems premature. But perhaps they have a point, when job security, housing security and the idea of a stable health care system prove elusive). And yet, with the exception of the amount of our life we spend drooling, politicians have reduced the seven ages to two: those who work and can be taxed, and those who are a charge on the taxpayer.

My children also labour under the impression that Great Britain has a retirement age. It does not. What it does have is an age below which it is not possible to claim a state pension. But I think life is more complicated than that. Most of us have to spend our days working. When the time comes to retire, some people live high off the hog, likely with a nicely matured pension, while others are forced to live much more modestly off what the state provides.

If you read the news, you are reminded almost daily that it is very hard – if not impossible – to live off a state pension in Britain today.

The situation isn’t going to change any time soon. In 1945, you might have expected to live to 64. Nowadays, life expectancy is closer to 81 (with women – probably rightly – continuing to outlive men). All of which means that young people will soon have to carry on working longer simply to keep the state pension afloat.

I am sure that most of us are happy to help the Dorset pensioner struggling to pay her fuel bill. But I am not convinced that young people would feel quite so charitable contributing to some ex-banking septuagenarian who has millions saved in a private pension and now gets to take a joyride on the London Underground for free. I am mildly astonished that there’s not yet been intergenerational warfare. Perhaps the prospect of seeing one’s grandmother in the crosshairs is sufficient deterrent.

We have an election coming up. The Tories have promised the so-called ‘triple lock’ on pensions (where rates increase annually in line with the highest of inflation, average wage increases or 2.5%) will remain.

And yet, perhaps what whomever wins the election ought to be doing, is bringing in a measure of judgement. Of fairness.

Some of us have been lucky enough to save throughout our working lives. Others have worked just as hard but found it impossible to do more than make ends meet.

No one likes means testing, and anyway, what on earth would it look like? How should I know whether someone chose to live frivolously rather than look ahead? But I do know there is a difference between those lucky enough ‘to no longer give a fig’ and those having to go without heat. We are, after all, the country that promised to look after its citizens from cradle to grave.

I must go now – a letter has arrived informing me that the state will pay me the handsome bounty of £500 for my winter fuel allowance. All I have to do is stay alive.

Jeremy Paxman

Written by Jeremy Paxman