Today (24 October), a man with a substantial pension and a seat in the Lords demonstrated either his ignorance of, or indifference to, values which almost all cultures understand as underpinning the cohesion of a decent society.
Michael Bichard, a cross bencher, former Permanent Secretary in the Department for Education and Employment and member of a committee studying the effect of demographic change on public services, expressed the view that retired people should undertake community work such as caring for “the very old” or risk losing part of their state pension.
Such a move, said Lord Bichard, would prevent older people becoming “a burden on the state”. That is a chilling phrase with an echo of the “useless eaters” of Nazi propaganda. I do not suggest for one moment that Lord Bichard would wish to see pensioners sent to concentration camps, but the underlying concept that economic activity is the sole measure of an individual's worth to society is inhumane and profoundly impoverished.
Over a million older people are already caring for older members of their families, saving the state a considerable amount while others serve as volunteers across a wide range of socially useful initiatives. The idea that men and women in their seventh, eighth and even ninth decades have nothing to offer by just being themselves, and require, in Bichard's sinister phrase, to be “incentivised”, is indicative of a society which so often fails to value and learn from the wisdom of its older citizens. These people, who may have worked for forty or fifty years, brought up families and ridden many of the storms still tossing those of us who are younger, have much to teach us. There can surely be few of us who have not had occasion to be grateful for insight, example and inspiration from people of pensionable age.
Many will have had hard working lives. They will have accrued neither status nor substantial pension pots. Some will have had their young lives deformed by war, want and poor health care and will now be struggling with low incomes and declining health. Modest security in their older years, paid for by taxes and National Insurance contributions, is their right. It is our duty to ensure they receive it and to speak for their dignity. A culture which displays begrudgery towards those who have made the longest contribution as they enter upon their time of increased need, should consider the simple and timeless wisdom of the fifth commandment.
© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger  You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen