Craig Dalzell – 9th December 2021
Four years ago Common Weal was approached by my now co-author Bill Johnson, then the chair of Scottish Seniors’ Alliance, to write a “short” policy paper on age and ageism in Scotland. The initial scope of the paper was to challenge the idea that the entire population of Scotland who happened to be above a certain age could be written off as a uniform block of “older people” and that Scotland needed to do more in policy formation than to simply look at population charts and declare an incoming “demographic timebomb”.
As this paper dovetailed nicely with some existing work we had been doing on demographics in Scotland – especially around pensions – I happily joined in with scoping the paper out in our usual manner. It fairly quickly became obvious that this was turning into something much larger than our usual 5,000 – 15,000 word policy paper but a full book instead.
Four years and 58,000 words later, that book is finally complete. All of Our Futures may well be the first attempt to address issues of an ageing population in Scotland in a manner that comprehensively looks at all aspects of life but does so in a way that avoids writing off an entirely generation as a “burden” or a “problem to be solved”.
The demographic shift that Scotland is undergoing has been known for decades and “Scotland is ageing” is an established fact. In common with much of the rest of the world, child mortality in Scotland has declined to levels that would have been unthinkable just a few generations ago, formerly fatal illnesses are now routinely – almost trivially – curable and our current generations can expect to live years or decades longer than their grand and great-grandparents. The idea that we can live in a society of older people should be a cause of celebration – a success of civilisation unmatched in tens of thousands of years of history.
And yet, our current neoliberal, capitalist economy values you not as a person but only as much as you have utility as an efficient market consumer. If you are a “worker”, then you are productive and able to generate assets; if you are not, then you are without utility. If you have assets, you can trade them for goods and services; if you do not then you cannot fulfil your function in a market economy. Is it any wonder then that older retired folk – especially those who are primarily reliant on a state pension (or “taxpayer’s money” to use the pejorative) are framed as a “burden on society” by this kind of neoliberal economy?
Ageism is a deeper problem than just this crude view of economic utility but it is certainly at the core of it such that ageism cannot be truly eradicated without changing our economy to one that views people as people, not merely as consumers. We all have a vested interest in doing this. All forms of prejudice are reprehensible but ageism differs from many of the others in that it is one that we all face the possibility of becoming the victims of. Assuming we live long enough, we shall all grow old.
How long our life will be is still too heavily dependent on where we live. The life expectancy of the most deprived areas of Scotland is up to 13 years lower than the life expectancy of the least deprived areas. The problems of this disparity is made worse when considering healthy life expectancy. People living in the most deprived areas of Scotland can only expect, on average, 47 to 50 years of healthy life (compared to over 71 years in the least deprived areas). Healthy life expectancy in Scotland has also been declining rapidly in the past few years, with people losing an average of six months of healthy life in the past five years. Considering that UK policy has been to increase state retirement age in line with overall average life expectancy and we see that older people in deprived areas of Scotland are increasingly expected to continue to work despite declining health and despite them working towards a retirement age that they are increasingly less likely to live to see.
Our book offers several solutions across various policy sectors. Given it is such an important issue to the independence movement, I expect many to be interested in our chapter looking at how the UK pension system fails older people in Scotland. Compounding on the life expectancy issues related above, the British pension system is a vast outlier compared to our neighbours in Europe. The line that the UK state pension is one of the worst in the developed world is true and even when private pensions and income from assets like inflated house prices are considered, average pensioner income is barely average. That increased emphasis on the private sector puts too many people at risk of pensioner poverty given that they are only a housing crash away from losing their capital or just one dodgy boss away from seeing their pension fund being converted into someone else’s luxury yacht. We propose that an independent Scotland not only look at ways to increase the state pension but also look at ways to de-emphasise the entire private pension sector. A “single payer, public option” occupational pension would be one way of doing this. Based on the system already in place in Sweden, it would effectively mean setting up a publicly owned, not-for-profit pension system that any employee could join as an alternative to their employer’s own private pension options (with the same rate of employer’s contributions and other conditions). Not only could this public option offer higher returns it would also mean not having to pay fees to transfer or consolidate your various private pensions from previous jobs (or risk trying to manage multiple small pension pots upon retirement) and would be particularly advantageous to people who change job frequently or who work multiple jobs simultaneously.
Additionally, we believe that the state pension should be effectively folded into a Universal Basic Income. This would remove the “cliff edge” of suddenly transitioning from “worker” to “pensioner” simply by dint of reaching one more birthday and would allow people to phase down their work or retire when they want and are ready to. You’d have the freedom to work longer if you want and are able to. You’d be able to wind down or retire earlier if you can’t.
Housing is another extremely important sector to get right and there has rarely been a better time to do it. We already need to adapt our regulations for new buildings to bring them in line with the needs of the climate emergency and to retrofit existing buildings to cope with changing climate and energy needs. But in Scotland we’ve been slow to adapt our houses for the changing needs of the people living in them. Houses are built quickly, cheaply and as small as possible so as to enable developers to extract maximum profit from their cut-and-run operations. This can result in houses that are too small and awkwardly built to do things like install stairlifts or a downstairs, walk-in bathroom or even to make sure that kitchen cupboards are easily reachable for someone in a wheelchair or someone who cannot easily bend down (these issues are not just issues of age, of course, and solving them would have implications for general accessibility in the home for anyone who needs it). These problems are compounded for private rented tenants who – unlike their counterparts in many European countries – do not have the right to modify their home to suit their needs and often can’t get permission from their landlord to arrange for the changes to be made. Faced with a home that is no longer suitable – or if one wants to downsize in retirement – our broken housing “market” often means that it’s impossible to buy or rent a suitable alternative house within the same community. Older people face the very real prospect of having to move away from their friends, family and other support structures and the communities themselves lose that person to the richness of the collective wellbeing of the local society. Instead, we should follow the principles laid down in my 2020 paper Good Houses for All to bring back social housing not as a stop-gap against market failure but as a core policy at the front of housing policy where houses are built to demand and at standards of quality and accessibility that forces the private sector to up its own standards to compete. Communities should be designed to allow people to stay within them if they wish to – even if it means building new housing to demand – and everyone, including private tenants, should have the right to treat their house as their home and to ensure that it meets their needs.
All of Our Futures covers many other topics including: election politics, the ageing workforce and the Just Transition, proactive and personalised healthcare, wealth and inheritance, and more. I hope it’ll be of particular interest to proponents of the idea that Scottish Independence should be a means to a greater end and that we’ve had enough of politics being driven by election cycles and weekly headlines. Perhaps it’s time to start trying to plan on slightly longer timescales. Personally, I hope to ensure that by the time we reach 2045 and the work on the Green New Deal (should we get one!) is complete then I can look forward to my own retirement knowing that we’ve created a Scotland that will treat me not as a burden but as a valued member of a kinder, fairer world. In the words of one of the volunteers who helped edit the book, “That’s the kind of Scotland I’d like to grow old in”.