IN FEBRUARY, FIANNA Fáil published a policy document around Active Ageing and Quality Caring that recommended, among many other reforms, the abolition of mandatory retirement at 65 in both public and private sector employment. It has come under recent scrutiny as their proposals around mandatory retirement are about to be brought before the Oireachtas. Their argument is that forcing someone out of a job because of their calendar age is ageist, and therefore should be illegal.
In Ireland, there is no statutory ‘retirement age’. What we do have is a pensionable age of 66, at which milestone citizens with sufficient social contributions from their working lives are rewarded with the contributory State Pension of up to €230.30 per week. Anyone without the required contributions for a full contributory pension can be means-tested and may qualify for a non-contributory State Pension of up to €219 per week. Technically, Irish people can retire at any age; it’s just that not many can afford to retire early.
There are, of course, many older people who want to keep working after 65, but who are restricted from doing so by their employers. A 2007 case heard by the European Court of Justice ruled that it was indeed illegal to restrict someone from carrying on in employment simply because of their age, as long as the individual is capable in all other senses of carrying out their duties. The Labour Court and the High Court have both recognised this decision and accepted that there are only a few circumstances under which mandatory retirement ages could be justified. If people are able to do their jobs, they shouldn’t be effectively shown the door because of the date on the calendar.
Opponents of the move to scrap mandatory retirement cite high youth unemployment as a reason to maintain current practice. This simply isn’t true. A 65-year-old, having worked for over forty years, isn’t going to be directly replaced by a 20-something year old school-leaver or graduate. In fact, research shows that, all across Europe, the countries with the best practices for older workers also have the highest rates of employment among the young. It’s obvious enough, when you think about it; the best countries to work in are the best for all ages. Shunting one generation out doesn’t automatically benefit other generations.
Of course, scrapping mandatory retirement ages doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t retire. Many people will feel that they could contribute more to society in retirement, be it through joining an Active Retirement Association, volunteering, becoming active in the community or any amount of other activities. While no-one should be forced to retire, no-one should be forced to stay at work either.
As such, any reforms should include a deferrable state pension age. In the UK, residents can ‘top-up’ their pensions if they choose to stay in work longer. At the moment in Ireland, there’s no reason not to claim your state pension at the age of eligibility, but seeing as not having to pay everyone at 66 would save the State money, it’s in the national interest to incentivise people to defer their pensions.
Our system of social transfers is almost bankrupt and certainly needs a rethink. The government’s only response so far has been to raise the pensionable age. If they don’t scrap mandatory retirement in employment contracts, we may be faced with people being turfed out of their jobs at 65, and reliant on the dole for support until they reach 67 or 68.
Scrapping mandatory retirement ages would be a good first step to tackling this issue, but only if we see it as just that: the first step of many. We need to look at retirement in a whole new light. Allowing people to take a phased approach to retirement, working part-time and claiming a reduced pension for a few years in older age, needs to be examined. Not only does this keep experience and expertise in businesses, it eases the burden on the State too. Surely Michael Noonan, aged just 69 years, could see the financial sense in that.
Peter Kavanagh works with Active Retirement Ireland, Ireland’s largest community-based older people’s organisation, and is a member of the National Steering Group for the European Year for Active Ageing and Solidarity Between Generations.