Into the Crystal Ball

New Zealand Government predicting the future crystalBall1

The Government recently announced that it would be raising the age of eligibility for superannuation. The Retirement Commissioner, Diane Maxwell has openly supported
the move saying that by 2061 there will be 1.5 million people over 65 and therefore proposed a slow roll-out of increased eligibility.

Now, before she scares everyone into apoplexy, cast your minds back forty-four years and look at what life was like in 1973. It was very different to today where workforces had a far more labour-intensive component. This was the analogue era with typewriters, snail mail, LPs and turntables. There was no internet, computers were rare, in fact everything required far more physical input than today. Vehicles lacked electronic management systems, there was no such thing as ABS, crumple zones or airbag technology. Compared to today cars were primitive. The last four decades has seen technology advance so rapidly that driver-less cars are just around the corner. The notion of the internet, mobile phones, WiFi, webcams were in the realm of science-fiction in 1973. Thus, it begs the question whether Diane Maxwell possesses a clairvoyant ability to predict how our workforce will be structured in 2061! 

This is particularly interesting when considering retirement age eligibility. In 2017, persons over 65 are unlikely to find employment save for voluntary work. Employees in all walks of life are now required to be computer savvy, in fact most job opportunities require online applications. As folk age, the less inclined they are towards adapting to evolving technology. Of course, the Commissioner would argue that most 65year old’s would be in existing employment, but the acid test is whether they would be recruitable.

The push towards automation and regulatory standardisation can only increase as time goes by, hence a need to swell the workforce with oldies in 2061 seems unlikely. Increases in retiree numbers are nothing new in New Zealand. Between 1901 and 1951, the number of New Zealanders aged 65 years and over increased almost six-fold, from 31,000 to 177,000. Over the next 48 years, it grew by another 151 percent to reach 446,000 in 1999. (i)
So why the current beat-up when our predecessors handled the increases with aplomb? A couple of years ago, Labour’s David Parker, floated the same daft idea of raising the threshold of super eligibility by two years, saying it would provide New Zealanders with certainty. One wonders what happened to death and taxes!
The 2013 census reported that 607,035 people aged 65 years and over resided in New Zealand.
The Retirement Commissioner swept in with a new brush in 2013 and renamed her department the Commission for Financial Capability with the by-line – Building Wealthier Lives. (ii) Ms Maxwell obviously has a clear vision of where she is heading, albeit a naïve and short-sighted one. Health and wealth working in synergy are the cornerstones of meaningful retirement, sadly the ravages of ageing are unavoidable as health inevitably declines with age. As the old saying goes, all the tea in China will not buy good health, therefore any prior provisioning by way of “financial capability” to create “wealthier lives” in old age has absolutely no currency to a dementia patient.
There is one very unscientific assumption that seems to be the driving force in raising superannuation entitlement. It is widely believed that people are living longer, hence they can work longer.
As with all sweeping assumptions, the facts are a little more complex. Life expectancy has increased by around a decade in the last 50 years to approximately 81 years in New Zealand. Medical advancement is arguably the main contributor, but even so, while “lifespan” may have shifted upward, so too has the number of totally dependent people. One school of thought suggests that we are not living longer, merely dying more slowly. Modern medicine keeps people alive by definition of a beating heart, but whether we are living meaningful existences in our latter years is another matter.
But here is the rub. The rate of human decline accelerates after 60. At 65 it becomes incrementally greater and after 70, physical decline becomes more rapid. The rate of decline can be slowed for those who remain physically and mentally active, but that doesn’t necessarily achieve longevity. The fact that an individual may live to 85 or so, can often be attributed to medical science rather than quality of life. Most people by the age of 65 have at least one significant medical condition and provided they live long enough will accrue more. An indicator as to the prevalence of concurrent conditions is the widespread use of blister packs for multiple medications.
Thus, the further down the slippery slope one travels the less quality of life is available. The proponents of raising eligibility refer to “living longer” or “lifespan” which is easily determined by a death certificate. In recent times a new criterion known as “healthspan” has been introduced to measure and promote healthy living in the latter stages of life. The irony is that the criteria for “healthspan” is in part counter-intuitive to that of lifespan. “Healthspan” advocates healthy diet and exercise to maintain muscle mass and bone density, whereas some researchers believe that lifespan is extended by reduced diet. (iv)
The powers that-be fail to acknowledge quality over quantity. Hence the Government is effectively confiscating 2 years of “healthspan” retirement on the basis of extended “lifespan.” No acknowledgement is made of the fact that many poor souls in the latter stages of “lifespan” eke out a meaningless existence in a twilight world of dementia and chronic illness. This effectively means that 2 years of “healthspan” retirement purloined by increasing age eligibility, is notionally replaced by the final two years of life which are effectively the least meaningful.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, lifespan was diminished by overcrowded living conditions, dangerous workplaces, infant mortality and perhaps most significant, poor sanitation leading to cholera and other diseases. By the twentieth century things had improved dramatically and life expectancy gradually rose to levels previously enjoyed during biblical times. The biblical quotes below, underpin the universal truth that “healthspan” is measured as three scores years and ten and that by 80, quality of life is severely compromised.
English Standard Version Psalm 90:10. The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away. (iii)
New Living Translation 2 Samuel 19:35. I am eighty years old today, and I can no longer enjoy anything. Food and wine are no longer tasty, and I cannot hear the singers as they sing. I would only be a burden to my lord the king. (iii)
(Another way of putting it might be to say that beyond 70 years, our faculties decline and we negotiate a minefield of medical challenges that lay-in-wait to finish us off. That said, most people can cite examples of people in late old-age enjoying good health, but these cases are the exception rather than the rule)
The above biblical quotes are used in the context of historical reference and are not intended to introduce theological discussion. Nonetheless, it is something of an irony that universal truths having withstood two millennia are being re-evaluated by the Retirement Commissioner aided and abetted by Bill English. One might ask, are they really that deluded?
There is not a skerrick of evidence to suggest that ageing parameters have shifted. People in old paintings visually depict their true age much the same as today. Footballers retire between 30 and 35, men start going bald in their twenties, women are not having babies in their fifties, therefore the “lifespan” clock ticks along as it always has. To accept a notion that one age group (as it heads towards retirement) gets charged by some miracle elixir of life, requires unconditional belief in the gospels according to Diane Maxwell and Bill English (notwithstanding the fact that they themselves are in the forties and fifties).
For the first time in 20 years, life expectancy has marginally dropped in the USA. This has been attributed in the main to obesity and opioid use. The latest data shows life expectancy for both men and women in
the U.S. dropped between 2014 and 2015, from 76.5 years in 2014 to 76.3 in 2015 for men, and from 81.3 to 81.2 for women. (v)
Given that New Zealand is by no means winning the battle against obesity and illicit drugs, raises even more doubt on speculative “lifespan” projections.

(i) StatsNZ: (ii) Commission for Financial Capability: (iii) Biblical References: (iv) Source Wiley: (v) National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS)
© Julie Carter. All rights reserved

Last modified on Thursday, 07 September 2017 16:08

Julie Carter

Op-ed article writer

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