Professor Len Shackleton's argument for why

The attitude to older people in the Covid-19 pandemic has been far too negative. From the beginning they have been seen as an undifferentiated ‘vulnerable’ group, being statistically at greater risk than the rest of the population from the disease – although this may be largely the result of co-morbidities such as diabetes or heart disease rather than age itself.

As lockdown has continued, however, there have been grumblings that the young are being penalised economically, both in the short term and in terms of future careers, to lengthen lives which have in many cases been easier than theirs are likely to be, and are already nearly over.

In this view the old - the awful ‘boomers’ - are seen as holding things back. They should perhaps be obliged to stay at home while the supposedly invulnerable young get back to work and to the pleasures of pre-coronavirus normality, such as pubs, raves and demonstrations.

And maybe state pensions (until now protected by the ‘triple lock’) and other benefits, such as free travel and winter fuel allowances, should take a hit. This would help mitigate the horrendous budgetary costs of the lockdown.

But the view that older people are simply a burden on wider society is wrong. Many make a massive contribution.

While economic activity rates are obviously lower for older workers, in recent years more and more continue in employment well past the age at which their parents retired. Over 10% of all over the age of 65 were still in work when the virus hit the UK.

The proportion of those in the ‘young old’ category was much higher. The most recent figures show that, in the year to September 2019, over 1.3 million of those 65 and over were in employment. 520,000 of these were over 70, the age group which some seem to want to keep in semi-permanent house arrest.

For some working past normal retirement age this may be an economic necessity, given poor retirement provision, limited savings and vanishingly low interest rates. Despite rising pensioner incomes over the last twenty-five years, not all are like those prosperous folk shown in TV adverts contemplating new conservatories.  

For most, however, it also reflects improved health in later life, changes in occupational structure with more emphasis on brainwork rather than physical labour, and a growing preference for continuing to make a contribution to the economy and society rather than devoting themselves to golf and gardening.

Some of these older workers – in legal and accounting services, for example, where 18,000 over-70s are still in employment – may have been able to work from home in lockdown. Others, however, may not.

One important sector with a large proportion of older workers is agriculture, where working outside the home is essential. Last year nearly 20 per cent of all those working in this sector were over 65; 11 per cent - over 35,000 people – were over 70. A requirement that all these workers stay at home indefinitely would likely have a significantly damaging effect on the agricultural sector at a time when we may be trying to increase domestic production because of trade disruption.

Of course it could be argued that effectively forcing many older workers out of the economy would  create new openings for some younger people who would otherwise be unemployed. But there is a real danger that many small businesses owned by older people would simply close and jobs disappear as their owners were sidelined.

A disproportionate number of older workers are self-employed, and many have been hit particularly hard by lockdown. Up to the end of May some 120,000 self-employed people over the age of 65 had used the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme at a cost of £400 million.

This surprised some readers of The Times, one of whom wrote ‘If they are pensioners they already get a pension. How does this work? Looks like fraud. Either one or the other. You can’t claim both’. Such ignorance is understandable, but needs to be challenged.

In addition to paid work, retired people also form the backbone of many important voluntary organisations, from helping the National Trust, running charity shops and foodbanks, to keeping non-elite football, cricket and other sports clubs going. Around 5 million older people have been engaged in voluntary work of one kind or another in recent years.

So apart from the loss of output in the formal economy, and financial hardship to some in this age group, there would be a difficult-to-recover loss of social capital if older volunteers were to be kept in lockdown indefinitely.

And in the longer term, we really must signal to younger people that their seniors are useful members of the community, and that they themselves can and should continue working rather than look to retire at the earliest opportunity.

For as the population continues to age, and the cost of state pensions and elder care increases, we need as many as possible of those in their 60s, 70s and beyond to continue to contribute to society.

About the author

Professor Len Shackleton is the Professor of Economics at the University of Buckingham and Research Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

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the view that older people are simply a burden on wider society is wrong. Many make a massive contribution.

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