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Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Age of Entitlement

A shorter version of this was edited, with a breadknife it would seem, and appeared in The Herald 19th March 

The current furores over pensions, both private and public sector, and higher education funding, more than in any of the other political debates of the day, distinguish themselves not in what is discussed, but in what studiously avoids being discussed.

As one who comes from the butt end of the baby boom, but who has no pension provision and who has been holed below the waterline by the brazenly ideologically-driven economic policies of the Coalition, I can not speak too lowly of the bankers and their stooges, Osbourne, Cameron and company, but there are others I look at more than slightly askance. While the present Westminster government may be dead wrong in more ways than one could point a firing squad at, my sympathy for students and pensioners matches that which I have for the self-immolating Lib Dems.

When pensions were first introduced in 1908, they provided a small, barely subsistence level income for the minority of people who lived long enough to be entitled to one, most of whom will have started work at 14 or even younger and did so for longer hours without paid holidays. Even 70 years after this, life expectancy was not markedly greater than the pensionable age, but since then, it has risen considerably as healthcare, housing and diets improved and while general quality of life reached levels undreamt of only a few decades ago. 

Parallel to these trends, the age at which people leave full-time education and that at which they start work have steadily risen, while the age at which they expect to retire has dropped. While people complain bitterly at any negative deviation from index-linking between pay and inflation, expectations have exploded to preposterous levels while at the same time, the demographic bulge has moved steadily skywards.

I am fascinated to know exactly how people have arrived at the conclusion that they can leave school at 18, spend 3 or 4 years in further or higher education, often with a couple of gap years thrown in while they go walkabout in exotic lands, start work in their mid-20s, put at the very most 20% of their income into a pension fund, retire sometimes as early as 50 or 55 on a final salary pension and live happily into their 80s. The most infuriating aspect of this frankly infantile sense of entitlement is that it is most prevalent amongst those who have enjoyed free higher education and all the benefits this brings and should know better.

In the last few decades, cliches such as "60 is the new 40" have morphed into mantras. A lot of people are going to have to wake up, take a good sniff of their cappuccinos and accept that 80 is the new 65 and trim their retirement expectations accordingly.

Many millions of us are suffering unemployment and penury with little prospect of redemption in order to fulfil others' fantasies. We are the silent, suffering majority. We dream not of retiring, but of working and earning enough to get by. I have two pre-school children and their futures look bleak. Rather than investing in a pension, I had put my life savings into a small business which imploded within 5 minutes of Northern Rock's car crash as my client base took fright and stopped spending. Nobody bailed me out and I didn't ask.

Public sector unions, students and those at the fat end of the private sector would be well advised to think twice before they demonstrate and remonstrate too loudly. Some day soon, they may well find that rather than being amongst the audience at the scaffold of popular opprobrium, they are the star attractions.

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