Every now and then a country holds a nationwide debate that produces real learning. It happened in the UK almost two years after the vote for Brexit, when many people belatedly learned about the workings of the European single market.
I have spent much of this winter following the French debate about the appropriate retirement age. Any day now, Parliament could pass the government’s bill to raise the age from 62 to 64. From my street marches in Paris to “your” gestures in parliament, the argument is everywhere. Surprising truths have emerged that apply beyond France. Last month, I wrote that the French lead the world in allowing people the first golden decade of retirement. Now my main conclusion: the lower social classes should be allowed to retire about a decade before the upper classes.
Generally speaking, there are two types of workers: low paid and high paid. High earners study well into their twenties and may then spend years choosing a career. They have a lot of autonomy at work, sometimes having an office and even a toilet to themselves. They control their own schedules, consolidate their pay and status periodically, and decompress during vacations through the pool. Some never want to retire. high usually live into their eighties.
Then think about low-paid workers like cleaners, cashiers and construction workers. They often enter vocational training as teenagers and start work at age 18. They have less autonomy: they used to be surrounded by humans, and now increasingly by algorithms, which count things like how many calls they make. Many spend years out of work, disabled or unemployed. They have jobs, not careers. At 60, they can still be scrubbing floors for minimum wage. When I plunged into this life for holiday work, sorting milk crates on an assembly line, every minute felt like an hour. Some of my colleagues probably stuck it out for 40 years.
Low-wage workers often have miserable commutes. Priscilla Ludowski, leader of France gilets jaunes‘ Rebellion, told me that the nadir of Parisian suburban life was the packed train into town on Monday mornings. A victory was coming home before the children fell asleep, shattered. If that’s your working life, retirement might seem like a release. But many low earners acquire disability or chronic illness in their early sixties and die in their seventies.
It is cruel to make both groups work to the same age. French economist Thomas Piketty argues that instead of setting a retirement age, we should count years worked. If everyone worked 43 years, a garbage collector could retire at 60 and a lawyer at 67. France’s nationwide debate convinced the government to do so. His revised plan envisages a “long career”.: People who start work before 16 can retire at age 58, while people who start work at age 18 can quit at age 60.
But given the classroom, the retirement age should probably be more graded. True, it will make the pension system more complicated. An expert commission will be required to keep updating the working length for each occupation. As the work developed, old rules would continue to be repealed, such as those from the era of dirty coal-fired locomotives. which allowed French train drivers to retire at age 52. But in this case, the complexity is more reasonable.
Another takeaway from the French debate: Most workers don’t really like their jobs. And it seems work is getting more intense, perhaps thanks to technology that monitors employees’ breaks and keystrokes. In an analysis of the results of the European Working Conditions Survey for 15 countries, Marianne Rigo of the University of Düsseldorf et al.That work stress generally increased from 1995 to 2015, and that increase was largely driven by psychological demands. People in low-skilled occupations generally had higher levels of job stress and effort-reward imbalance.” Gallup’s latest annual State of the Global Workplace report, 44 percent of workers, an all-time high, described experiencing “a lot” of stress the previous day. Only 21 percent felt engaged in work.
Not surprisingly, some countries have seen the “Big Quit”. If we need people to work longer hours, we have to improve their experience, perhaps by reducing monitoring. We should also train them for good jobs. And we should tackle age discrimination so that someone hires them in their sixties. If the people at the top of society are going to add burdens to everyone’s life, they need to first understand what that life is really like.
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Simon will be speaking at the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival, which runs from March 25 to April 3. For more details, please visit oxfordliteraryfestival.org
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