State pension age, health, and dignity

By Bernadette Meaden
August 3, 2017

As the state pension age rises for both men and women, it will affect the poor much more than the wealthy, and the sick much more than the healthy. There will be implications for our system of working age benefits, as more and more people are drawn into the Kafkaesque world of Universal Credit and Employment and Support Allowance. Could this create enough political pressure for a degree of humanity to be restored to the system?

Analysing the effect of raising the State Pension Age for women, the Institute for Fiscal Studies pointed out that household incomes for women aged 60-62 are, on average, £32 lower.  On social media, however, Greater Manchester Poverty Action pointed out that, “averaging the figures hides women who are destitute.”

Indeed, the use of averages when discussing these issues does produce a very misleading picture, glossing over the very negative consequences for the least fortunate people. We are told, for instance, that because we are ‘all living longer’, when the state pension age hits 66 in 2020, women “will receive their pension for 23 years on average”.

The problem is though, that this average conceals the reality for the most disadvantaged people. There are huge inequalities in life expectancy, with a massive 25 year gap in life expectancy between the richest and poorest Londoners. As Dr. Wanda Wyporska of the Equality Trust has said, “being born poor effectively means an early death sentence in this country.”

And just as poorer people die younger, they get ill younger too. Statistics show that men and women in the most disadvantaged areas of the UK can only expect to live 52 years in good health, whilst those in the least disadvantaged areas can expect to live in good health to 70 for a man, and 71 for a woman.

So as the pension age rises, more and more people who previously would have been able to retire when they developed health problems will find themselves forced to claim working age benefits, entering a system that is harsh, miserly and punitive. To any who have bought into the media narrative of undeserving benefit scroungers living a life of comfort, the stress of conditionality and the below-subsistence income will come as a terrible shock. As the IFS says, in something of an understatement, “the working age tax and benefit system is considerably less generous than that faced by those over the state pension age.” Indeed, it now fails to prevent large numbers of people from falling into destitution, becoming reliant on foodbanks for not only food but toiletries and other essential items.

When growing numbers of older people enter this system, with its harsh conditionality and ever-present threat of sanctions, will its grotesquely cruel and inhumane nature at last become obvious?

When growing numbers of people in their 60s coping with cancer, heart disease, strokes and even dementia are sanctioned, will the Daily Mail pause for thought?

When growing numbers of people in their 60s are subjected to the dubious behavioural science of a ‘Health and Work Conversation’,  will the general public comprehend the completely inappropriate way the DWP treats people who are ill?

When growing numbers of people who have worked for over 40 years find their motivation and work ethic is questioned, when the fact that employers are not queuing up to take on people with significant health problems becomes impossible to ignore – will enough people then demand that the government starts treating benefit claimants with a modicum of compassion and respect?


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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