Every now and then a country has a nationwide debate that produces actual learning. It happened in the UK about two years after the vote for Brexit, when many people belatedly found out about the workings of the European single market.
I’ve spent much of this winter following the French debate about the right retirement age. Any day now, parliament may pass the government’s bill to raise the age from 62 to 64. The argument has raged everywhere from the marches along my road in Paris to “up yours” gestures in parliament. Surprising truths have emerged that apply far beyond France. Last month, I wrote that the French led the world in allowing people a first golden decade of retirement. My main conclusion now: that lower social classes should be allowed to retire about a decade before higher ones.
Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of workers: the low paid and the high. The high paid tend to study well into their twenties and then might spend years choosing a career. They have lots of autonomy at work, sometimes with an office and even a toilet to themselves. They control their own schedules, ratchet up their salary and status over time and decompress during holidays by the pool. Some never want to retire. The high typically live into their eighties.
Then think of low-paid workers like cleaners, cashiers and construction workers. They often enter vocational training in adolescence and start work by 18. They have little autonomy: they used to be bossed around by humans, and now increasingly by algorithms, which count things like how many calls they make. Many spend years out of work, incapacitated or unemployed. They have jobs, not careers. At 60, they might still be scrubbing floors for the minimum wage. When I dipped into this life for a holiday job, sorting milk crates on an assembly line, every minute felt like an hour. Some of my co‑workers probably stuck it out for 40 years.
Low-paid workers often have miserable commutes. Priscillia Ludosky, a leader of France’s gilets jaunes’ uprising, told me that the nadir of Parisian suburban life was the packed train into the city on a Monday morning. A triumph was arriving home, shattered, before the kids fell asleep. If that’s your working life, retirement probably feels like liberation. But many of the low paid acquire a disability or chronic illness by their early sixties and die in their seventies.
It’s cruel to make both groups work until the same age. The French economist Thomas Piketty argues that instead of setting retirement ages, we should count years worked. If everyone worked 43 years, the garbage collector might retire at 60 and the lawyer at 67. France’s nationwide debate persuaded the government of that. Its revised plan takes account of “long careers”: people who started work before 16 can retire at 58, while those who started by 18 can leave at 60 and so on.
But given the class chasm, retirement ages should probably be even more gradated. True, that would make the pensions system more complex. Specialist commissions would probably be required to keep updating the working length for each occupation. As work evolved, there would be constant scrapping of old rules, like the one dating from the era of filthy coal-fired locomotives, which allowed French train drivers to retire at 52. But in this case, complexity is fairer.
The other finding from the French debate: most workers really don’t like their jobs. And work seems to be getting more intense, perhaps because of technology that monitors employees’ breaks and keystrokes. In an analysis of results from the European Working Conditions Surveys for 15 countries, Mariann Rigó of Düsseldorf University et al found “that work stress generally increased from 1995 to 2015, and that the increase was mostly driven by psychological demands. People in lower-skilled occupations had generally higher levels of job strain and effort-reward imbalance.” In Gallup’s latest annual State of the Global Workplace report, 44 per cent of workers, an all-time high, described experiencing stress “a lot” of the previous day. Only 21 per cent felt engaged at work.
No wonder some countries have seen a “Big Quit”. If we need people to work longer, we’ll have to improve their experience, perhaps by cutting down on monitoring. We should also train them for better jobs. And we must counter age discrimination so that somebody will hire them into their sixties. If people at the top of society are going to add burdens to everybody else’s lives, they first need to understand what those lives are actually like.
Follow Simon on Twitter @KuperSimon and email him at email@example.com
Simon will be speaking at the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival, which runs from March 25 to April 3. For more details, please visit oxfordliteraryfestival.org
Follow @FTMag on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first