Why should those with higher wages work longer than others?
Every once in a while, a country has a national debate that results in actual learning. It happened in Great Britain about two years after the Brexit vote, when many people learned about the workings of the European single market late.
I spent most of the winter following the French debate about the appropriate retirement age. Any day now, the parliament can accept the government’s bill to increase the age limit from 62 to 64 years. Debates are raging everywhere, from the parades along my route in Paris to the “up” gestures in parliament. Surprising truths have been revealed that go far beyond France. Last month I wrote that the French led the world in allowing people to enjoy their first golden decade of retirement. My main conclusion now: the lower social classes should retire about a decade before the higher ones.
Broadly speaking, there are two types of workers: the low-wage and the high-wage. Well-paid people usually study until their twenties, and then they can spend years choosing a career. They have a lot of autonomy in their workplace, sometimes they have an office and even a toilet. They manage their own schedules, raise their salary and status over time, and freeze during poolside vacations. Some people never want to retire. The height they typically live into their eighties.
Consider low-wage workers such as cleaners, cashiers and construction workers. They often enter vocational training in their teens and start working at the age of 18. They have little independence: they used to be controlled by people, but now they are increasingly algorithms that count, for example, the number of calls. Many people spend years without work, unable to earn or unemployed. It’s a job, not a career. At the age of 60, they may still be scraping the floor for the minimum wage. When I got into this life for a holiday job sorting milk crates on a conveyor belt, every minute seemed like an hour. Some of my coworkers probably lasted 40 years.
Low-wage workers often have miserable jobs. Priscillia Ludosky, one of the leaders of France gilets jaunes‘ rise, he told me that the low point of Parisian suburban life was the packed train into the city on Monday mornings. A triumph came home, crushed, before the children fell asleep. If this is your job, retirement probably feels like a release. However, many of those on low wages develop disabilities or chronic illnesses in their early sixties and die in their early seventies.
It is cruel to work both groups at the same time. The French economist Thomas Piketty argues that instead of determining the retirement age, we should count the years worked. If everyone worked for 43 years, the garbage collector could retire at 60 and the lawyer at 67. France’s national debate convinced the government of this. Revised plan takes ‘long career’ into account: those who started working before the age of 16 can retire at the age of 58, while those who started at the age of 18 can leave at the age of 60, etc.
But given the class gap, the retirement age should probably be made more gradual. True, this would make the pension system more complicated. Expert committees would probably be needed to constantly update the working hours of each session. As the work developed, the old rules, such as those dating back to the era of dirty locomotives, were constantly being scrapped. which allowed French train drivers to retire at the age of 52. But in this case, complexity is more fair.
Another finding from the French debate: most workers really don’t like their jobs. And the work seems to be getting more intense, perhaps because of technology that monitors employees’ breaks and keystrokes. During the analysis of the results of the European working conditions survey covering 15 countries, Mariann Rigó, a colleague of the University of Düsseldorf, and her colleagues found that “that work-related stress generally increased from 1995 to 2015, and that the growth was mostly caused by psychological needs. Workers in lower-skilled occupations tended to have more stress at work and an imbalance between effort and reward.” In Gallup’s latest annual report on the state of the global workplace, 44 percent of workers, an all-time high, described experiencing “a lot” of stress the previous day. Only 21 percent felt engaged at work.
It is no wonder that there has been a “big exit” in some countries. If we need people to work longer hours, we need to improve their experience, perhaps by reducing supervision. We also need to train them for better jobs. And we need to crack down on age discrimination so that someone hires them in their sixties. If the people at the top of society are going to burden the lives of others, they should first understand what that life is like.
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Simon will be speaking at the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival, which runs from 25 March to 3 April. Visit for more details oxfordliteraryfestival.org
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