Why the better earners should work longer than the others

Every once in a while, a country engages in a nationwide debate that produces actual learning. It happened in the UK some two years after the Brexit vote, when many people were belatedly learning about how Europe’s single market worked.

I’ve spent a lot of this winter following the French debate on the right retirement age. Any day, Parliament could pass the government’s bill raising the age from 62 to 64. The dispute has raged everywhere, from marches down my street in Paris to “up yours” gestures in Parliament. Surprising truths have emerged that apply far beyond France. Last month I wrote that the French are world leaders in helping people enjoy their first golden decade of retirement. My main conclusion now: that lower social classes should be allowed to retire about a decade before higher ones.

Broadly speaking, there are two types of workers: the low-paid and the high-paid. The high-paid tend to study well into their 20s, and then may spend years deciding on a career. You have a lot of autonomy at work, sometimes with an office and even a toilet to yourself. They control their own schedules, increase their salary and status over time, and relax by the pool during vacations. Some never want to retire. The highs typically last into the eighties.

Then think of low earners like cleaners, cashiers and construction workers. They often go into vocational training as young people and start working at 18. They have little autonomy: they used to be bossed around by humans, but now increasingly by algorithms that count, for example, how many calls they make. Many have been unemployed, disabled or jobless for years. They have jobs, not careers. At 60, they might still be scrubbing the floor for minimum wage. When I plunged into this life for a summer job sorting milk crates on the assembly line, every minute felt like an hour. Some of my colleagues have probably stuck it out for 40 years.

Low earners often have miserable commutes. Priscillia Ludosky, a leader of France yellow vests‘ Uprising told me that the low point of Parisian suburban life was the crowded train into the city on a Monday morning. A triumph came home shattered before the children fell asleep. If this is your work life, retirement probably feels like a liberation. But many of the low-income earners become disabled or chronically ill in their early 60’s and die in their 70’s.

It is cruel to have both groups working until the same age. The French economist Thomas Piketty advocates counting the years worked instead of setting the retirement age. If everyone worked for 43 years, the garbage man could retire at 60 and the lawyer at 67. France’s nationwide debate has convinced the government of this. The revised plan takes into account “long careers”: people who started working before age 16 can retire at 58, while those who started at 18 can retire at 60, and so on.

But in view of the class difference, the retirement age should probably be graduated even more. That would make the pension system more complex. Technical commissions would likely be required to keep updating the length of work for each profession. As work evolved, old rules like those from the dirty coal-fired locomotive era, which allowed French train drivers to retire at 52, were constantly abandoned. But in this case, complexity is fairer.

The other takeaway from the French debate: Most workers really don’t like their jobs. And work seems to be getting more intense, perhaps because of technology monitoring employees’ breaks and keystrokes. In an analysis of the results of the European Working Conditions Surveys for 15 countries, Mariann Rigó from the University of Düsseldorf et al. states that “work stress in general increased from 1995 to 2015 and that the increase was mainly due to psychological demands. People in low-skilled jobs generally had higher levels of workloads and an imbalance between effort and reward.” In Gallup’s latest annual report on the State of the Global Workplace, 44 percent of workers, an all-time high, said the previous day having experienced “a lot” of stress. Only 21 percent felt engaged at work.

No wonder some countries have experienced a “big quit”. If we need people to work longer hours, we need to improve their experience, perhaps by reducing surveillance. We should also train them for better jobs. And we need to end ageism so someone will hire them well into their 60s. If people at the top of society want to burden everyone else’s lives, they must first understand what those lives are actually like.

Follow Simon on Twitter @KuperSimon and email him simon.kuper@ft.com

Simon will be speaking at the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival which runs from March 25th to April 3rd. For more details see oxfordliteraryfestival.org

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https://www.ft.com/content/b51fb31e-add8-4492-9792-50873d59f8df Why the better earners should work longer than the others

Brian Ashcraft

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