Are universal state pensions discriminating against those in lower-skilled jobs?

With the state pension age likely to rise further in coming years, are policymakers right to link pension eligibility to average life expectancy? In a one-size-fits-all system, which social groups will lose out? Dr Emily Murray and colleagues* used census data to look at who lives longest after leaving work.

In most industrialised countries, the eligibility age for state pensions is being increased. Between 2011 and 2018, the United Kingdom government raised the State Pension Age for women from age 60 to 65, to match that for men, and a further increase to age 67 for both genders is planned by 2028. A further increase to age 68 by 2039 has been mooted.

Yet our state pension system ignores some very basic facts – it doesn’t take into account the wide disparities in health and life expectancy between different social classes. Those in professional occupations can expect to live longer and to enjoy good health for longer than those in manual jobs. For example, the average 50 year-old man in a professional job can expect to enjoy a further 25 years of good health, while a man the same age in a manual occupation can only expect 18: a seven-year difference. That is why lower social class groups are more likely to find themselves on disability benefit.

We wanted to look more closely at these occupational social class differences in the amount of time older adults live after they stop work, and in particular at the extent to which these differences are due to health.

We used the Office for National Statistics Longitudinal Study, a one per cent representative sample of respondents to the English and Welsh censuses since 1971.  For our analysis, we included respondents who were aged 50-75 at the time of the 2001 census and who had stopped work by 2011 – the average age of stopping was 58 for women and 60.2 for men. These workers were born in 1951 or earlier, so men would have been eligible for state pension at 65 and women at 60.

That gave us a sample of 76,485 people, and over the next 10 years we were able to monitor deaths  – by 2011 14.6 per cent of the women and 25.1 per cent of the men had died.

We could see that for both genders, those in lower social classes tended to die younger – professional women lived two years longer than unskilled women, and professional men three years longer than unskilled men.

We estimated professional women in good health would live five years longer than unskilled women in poor health, while for men the gap would be five and a half years.

But despite these longevity gaps, those from lower social groups were facing more years between leaving work and being able to draw their state pensions – because they left work earlier.

We estimated that if two women were 65 in 2001, the woman who had worked in an unskilled occupation would live five years longer after leaving work than the professional woman with good health – because the unskilled woman would have left at a younger age. Two men in the same circumstances would live on average 25.0 and 19.5 years from stopping work to death.

The most likely explanation is that poor health has a greater impact on the ability of manual workers to continue working than it does on non-manual workers.  It is however important to note that associations between social class and post-work years were not entirely explained by health, and we feel more research is needed on this.

Poor health

But the conclusion is clear: our results show that a uniform state pension age disproportionately affects the poorest among us, because on average they must wait longer between stopping work and qualifying for their state pension, at a time when they are likely to be in poor health. This is despite the fact that they are likely to have started work younger and therefore to have worked and paid contributions for just as many years as their better-off peers.

The solution to this inequality is not straightforward. The preferred strategy for UK policymakers is to support individuals to stay in work for longer, and there is evidence that the average age of leaving work exit is increasing.  However, over half of women and two-fifths of men  still fall out of the labour market before state pension age.

Some researchers have suggested that pension ages should directly reflect life expectancy differences.  Alternatively the age requirement could be dropped and pension eligibility could be based solely on the number of years in work.

We believe a two-year earlier pension age may be more appropriate for individuals who work in manual occupations, given that they leave work earlier than professional workers not in good health.  With rises in pension age already in law, and evidence of stalling life expectancy, it is vital that researchers and policy-makers assess how these rises will influence financial security and health for the most vulnerable in society.

Inequalities in time from stopping paid work to death: findings from the ONS Longitudinal Study, 2001 to 2011 is by Emily T Murray,  Ewan Carr, Paola Zaninotto, Jenny Head, Baowen Xue, Stephen Stansfeld, Brian Beach and  Nicola Shelton.

*Emily T Murray, Ewan Carr, Paola Zaninotto, Jenny Head, Nicola Shelton and Baowen Xue are based at the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London.

Ewan Carr is also based at the department of Biostatistics and Health Informatics, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King’s College London, London.

Stephen Stansfeld is based at Queen Mary University of London, Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine, Centre for Psychiatry, London, EC1M 6BQ, UK

Brian Beach is based at the International Longevity Centre – UK, SW1P 3QB, London, UK.

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