Nearly half a million people in the UK are forced to retire before the state pension age because of illness or disability, a new TUC report has found, which accounts for on average one in eight people.
The number of people who retire before state pension age because they physically cannot work varies starkly in different regions in the UK. In the south west, for example, only one in 13 people cite sickness or disability as a reason for retiring early, but this figure rises sharply to one in seven in Yorkshire and the Humber, the North East, the North West, Wales and Scotland.
In Northern Ireland, the number of people retiring early because of sickness or disability stands at an astonishing one in four.
There are also wide disparities within different types of jobs – those in the lowest paid jobs, such as cleaners, carers, those working in the leisure industry and those doing heavy manual jobs, are twice as likely to drop out of the workforce early because of disability or illness compared to those in white-collar jobs.
Figures show that more and more people older than 50 are in work than 15 years ago, but the TUC notes that an increased state pension age isn’t a trigger for retirement for many people, which suggests that the government must pursue different policies if it wants to extend the population’s participation in the labour market.
“Raising the State Pension age is a poor tool for encouraging longer working lives,” the TUC analysis notes. “Reaching State Pension age is a retirement trigger for only some workers.
“Given that a minority of women and just a small majority of men remain economically active at this stage, there are already large numbers who have left the labour market and are unlikely to be impacted by changes in state pension age.
“Many of these are also suffering ill health or disability which prevent or limit their ability to participate in the labour market.”
Instead of using the punitive model of an ever-higher state pension age, the government should instead focus on supporting older people who actually can and want to extend their working lives, the TUC argues.
The analysis lays out a raft of measures that could help this happen, including strengthening existing legislation that gives workers the right to request flexible working arrangements from their employers, so that older workers can, for example, fit in any carers’ responsibilities they may have.
A mid-life career review was also recommended in the TUC analysis, which would place an emphasis on identifying any current or potential health issues at an early stage. A right to retraining for older workers, with paid time off from work to retrain was also suggested.
Most importantly, having decent pension provision in the first place will help extend people’s working lives for those who choose to.
“The right to retirement is important but has been threatened by poor workplace pension provision in recent years,” the TUC noted.
“Decent pensions can allow workers a phased retirement, as they draw both pension and wages. This can prolong their participation in the labour market by allowing them to continue working while managing health conditions, meeting caring responsibilities and engaging more fully in outside interests.
The analysis was submitted by the TUC to an independent review into the state pension age that the government is now undertaking.
The current state pension age is 60 for women and 65 for men, but will go up to 66 for both men and women by 2020. The government is considering further increases beyond 2020 too in its current review.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady argued that raising the state pension age is “an easy target for chancellors of the exchequer wanting to make stealth cuts.”
“But these figures show that we must hold off on any further rises in the pension age until we have worked out how to support the 1 in 8 workers who are too ill to work before they even get to state pension age,” she added.
“People should be able to retire in dignity with a decent pension when the time is right. Older workers have a crucial role to play in the labour market but we can’t expect the sick to wait longer to get a pension when they may need financial support more than ever.”
Unite national officer for retired members Mike McCartney agreed.
“Linking the state pension age to life expectancy is deeply unfair – it doesn’t take into account that life expectancy varies widely depending on your postcode, the type of job you have, how much money you earn, whether or not you have a disability or chronic illness and whether or not you grew up in poverty,” he explained.
“As usual, those who are struggling most already will be most harmed later in life by these government policies as the TUC analysis shows.”
“Another big concern for our retired members is the potential threat to the triple-lock on the state pension,” he added, pointing to the fact that former pensions minister Ros Altmann said in July the lock, which ensures state pensions rise each year above inflation, should be scrapped after 2020.
“In such uncertain times, the triple-lock has given those who are retired or approaching retirement the security of knowing that their pension will keep up with the skyrocketing costs of living,” McCartney added.
“Unite believes that everyone should be able to end their working lives knowing that they can have a decent life in retirement, especially after having contributed so much to the economy, their communities and their families for decades.
“The only way we can achieve this is by bolstering pensions provision, protecting the triple-lock and ensuring that the state pension age doesn’t become some blunt instrument used by the government to attack those who can least afford it.
“Those who truly want to work beyond the state pension age should be given as much support as possible, just as those who have been forced into early retirement because of illness or disability should be supported so that they don’t lose out either.”