How old is an 'older worker'?

The World Health Organization has recommended that ‘older people’ should replace the depersonalizing term ‘the elderly’. In the population at large the age at which one becomes ‘older’ has, quite properly, moved on with the growth in the expectation of life. Anxieties (largely ill-founded or tendentious) about the medical implications of ageing populations are usually expressed in terms of the numbers of people aged over 80. Certainly, in the developed world, the traditional male retirement age of 65 would now be regarded as a continuation of middle age rather than the onset of senility.

The retirement age of 65 for men was originally computed in 19th-century Germany, on the assumption that pensions would be paid by a levy on the wages of men still working—a ‘pay-as-you-go’ system. Conceptually, the developed world is moving toward the assumption that future pensions will be based on an insurance model (private or social), in which individuals will in effect pay in advance for their own pensions. Logically this would lead to a system in which the average (not necessarily compulsory) retirement age would be adjusted to take account of the expectation of life in later years, so that a levy of ‘x’ per cent of one’s earnings over an average of ‘y’ years would be seen as ‘purchasing’ an average of ‘z’ years of adequate income after retiring. Even more challenging than the actuarial intricacies of such a scheme would be equity issues raised by social class and occupation differences in life expectancy. Whatever happens, however, it is reasonable to expect that for the immediate future the ‘older worker, of practical concern to occupational health services, will be aged 55-70, rather than over 75 years of age.

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