November 4, 2009
On Monday afternoon, I came across an old lady sobbing as she scribbled a few loving notes onto a small wooden cross. Seeing that I noticed her, she wiped the tears and tried to pull herself together in true Scottish fashion, quite prim, but stern. She brushed down her pleated tartan skirt and tucked her scarf in around her collar to keep out the vicious north wind, which howled through the Scott Monument at the Garden of Remembrance in the centre of Edinburgh.
Who was she crying for — a son, a husband, a brother or maybe her own father? Where was she when she got the dreaded letter, the phone call or the hand on her shoulder? As she scribbled away lovingly, she was joined by other elderly people who came to remember, to pay respects and to say goodbye again.
These stoic old soldiers with their poppies and their memories were oblivious to the giggling Chinese tourists who clicked their cameras at the old men in kilts.
While the old Scots laid their wreaths and remembered their loved ones, it struck me that the two phenomena on display that blustery Edinburgh afternoon — rich Chinese tourists and elderly western Europeans — will dominate politics in the decades ahead.
In fact, there is a certain historical symmetry between the two phenomena because nowadays the Chinese are doing to America and the West what America did to Britain and Europe after the Second World War: they are buying assets. China is using her economic might to take advantage of an enfeebled America, just as America used its economic might to take advantage of a devastated Europe in 1945.
In many ways, both the old Scots and the young Chinese tourists are testament to the changing world.
We in Ireland can’t escape these trends. A few weeks ago, this column addressed the idea of China buying assets with all the dollars she has accumulated. Now let’s look at the ageing population issue and consider both the problems and the opportunities it might present.
In Ireland, we are getting older and surviving longer. For example, in 1986 the average man lived for 12.6 years after his retirement. By 2006, the average man lived 16.6 years after retirement. This is a 32pc increase in just 20 years. The State’s liability on pensions has also gone the wrong way as the pension age was dropped from 70 to 66 in 1970, when the population dynamics were different.
The thing about paying for our state pension is that it creeps up on you. It is not a thing you have to pay in one lump, rather every year, it just gets that little bit more expensive. The Comptroller and Auditor General’s Report last week calculated that the state pension will cost us â‚¬101bn over the next 50 years.
That’s a big number. Just to put that in perspective, â‚¬101bn is â‚¬230,593 for every hour of every day for the next 50 years just to pay our public sector pensions. So the rest of the workforce has to generate a surplus of â‚¬230,593 every hour for the next 50 years just to pay the pension commitments we have already entered into.
But what are we to do? It’s all very well to talk about pension reform when you are my age because it seems far away. But when I (hopefully) get to 65, I would love to have my full pay and I will be as protective of it and vociferous as I am today about national school funding (because my children go to the local national school). It is only human to realise that your position on all these matters is somewhat jaundiced by whether you benefit from them.
It is clear that the State, particularly as we all get older, will not interfere with pensions. Therefore the shortfall will have to come from more taxation on the young to pay for the old. We did try to address this issue with the National Pension Reserve Fund but extraordinarily the temptation to raid that particular piggybank was succumbed to this year to recapitalise the likes of Anglo Irish Bank. That money is now gone, possibly forever.
While much detail is focused on the state pension and public sector pension, the private sector pension position isn’t much better. Take the privatised Aer Lingus, for example. Last year, the company had to top up its pension by â‚¬29.3m just to keep the thing afloat. This is a huge ongoing liability for the company and the same is true of many companies.
So it’s clear that the average worker from the Pope’s Children generation faces a higher tax bill to pay for those of us older than them, and will be the first generation of Irish people to be poorer on retirement than their parents.
But is there something we can do about it? If all of Europe is getting old, why don’t we invest in geriatric care and make this place the old folks’ home of western Europe? It might sound strange with our climate, but it must be remembered that more elderly people die in the heatwaves of Europe,than ever die of the cold.
By old folks’ home I mean specialising in medicine for elderly people and specialising in the care of the elderly. Ireland has lots of spare housing estates where no one wants to live. We could create retirement villages in many of these empty houses and do deals with the NHS, for example, to look after some of Britain’s burgeoning pensioners.
Big demographic changes always present opportunities as well as threats and the opportunity in geriatric care is enormous, as well as humane.
Strange as it may seem, the next generation of elderly Scots who place poppies in remembrance around this time of year, could present a medical and employment opportunity for thousands of young Irish people who find themselves on the wrong side of the Celtic Tiger binge.