Simone Scherger (ed.), Paid Work Beyond Pension Age: Comparative perspectives

Simone Scherger (ed.), Paid Work Beyond Pension Age: Comparative perspectives, Palgrave Macmillan, 1 137 42513 2, hbk, xviii + 319 pp, 2015, £65

This thoroughly researched collection of chapters from authors in universities and research centres in Europe, China, and the USA, tackles an increasingly important issue. The editor’s introductory chapter shows how employment levels among people aged over 65 have risen during the past fifteen years, and it sets an agenda:

What is debated here is not only the institutional relationship between paid work, on the one hand, and old age and retirement, on the other, but also the question as to how people want to or should live in old age and the meaning that is attached to this. (p.21)

The book contains three sections: country cases, contexts, and consequences. The country cases come first, which grounds the discussion in particular contexts before the later sections tackle such wide-ranging issues as globalization, inequality, and wellbeing.

The country cases from the UK, the USA, Italy, Sweden, Russia, and China find increasing abolition of mandatory retirement ages, increasing employment – and particularly self-employment – among older age groups, a diversity of factors involved in employment decisions made by workers and workplaces, increasing inequality in old age, and a diversity of legislative frameworks (from the UK’s abolition of a statutory retirement age, through Sweden’s pension system, which encourages a longer working life, to Italy’s somewhat anachronistic insistence that pensions can only be paid once the worker has withdrawn completely from the employment market). A significant finding is that low-skilled workers often work beyond the age of 65 out of economic necessity, whereas better educated workers work beyond the age of 65 for social and task-related reasons. A further significant observation that the reader might make is that in countries that don’t look particularly democratic, such as Russia and China, public pressure appears to be driving government reluctance to raise or abolish statutory retirement ages, whereas in more obviously democratic countries, such as Sweden, Germany, and the UK, ‘retirement age’ is becoming an outdated concept and statutory retirement ages have either been abolished or have become less relevant.

The case studies raise an interesting question. The introductory chapter showed how retirement ages are becoming more diverse and less statutory, and how, because employment is rising in older age groups, the employment/retirement boundary is becoming more ‘fuzzy’. This raises an important question in relation to the significance granted to a worker’s 65th birthday from page 1 of the introduction onwards. ‘age 65’ is understandable as a convenient statistical boundary, but by the end of the case studies the reader is seriously questioning its validity and is wondering whether ‘retirement range: 55 to 75’ might better match the evidence presented.

The second part of the book tackles broader issues: pension reform in Europe (which both extends working life and blurs the boundary between retirement and employment); the transition to retirement (which is influenced by both institutional and social psychological factors, and particularly by the higher risk levels imposed on us by globalization); the ways in which companies are adapting to older workers; and the ways in which institutions in different organisational sectors understand the concept of retirement and its relationship to employment.

The third part of the book is about some of the consequences of the changes charted in the first two sections. Economic and employment circumstances affect wellbeing during retirement just as much as they do during working life; ageism is a continuing problem; and the precarity of much employment has increased the extent to which workers hope that retirement will offer them ‘late freedom’. The final chapter argues that complete flexibility across the life course might not be good for us, and that we might need to maintain the ‘fiction’ of ‘retirement age’, and to regard employment after retirement as a deviation from the standard model, because only such an understanding of the situation will legitimise the necessary social protection for older people and will

remind us of visions of the future that are not constructed around working longer and even in retirement age, but allow for both more freedom and welfare for all. These visions might inspire policies for better lives and fewer inequalities not only in industrialized countries but even more so in countries with so far underdeveloped or non-existent welfare states and pension systems. (p.314)

Of particular relevance to readers of this Newsletter will be chapter 8 on pension reform, which employs Esping-Andersen’s regime typology as its framework (on page 180. Esping-Andersen does not appear in the index. The index contains other quirks, too, such as at least one reference to a blank page). Chapter 8 is a thorough discussion of how pension systems are changing across Europe, and of reasons for those changes, but it does not make proposals for future changes. If ever a second edition is considered then the addition of a discussion of the state pension reforms that would best fit older people’s changing employment world would be useful. To universalise across Europe the residence-based but otherwise unconditional Dutch system discussed on p.188 would be the most effective way to provide the economic security that the pension and employment situation described in the book clearly requires.