To think clearly about the problems of an ageing population, take off the ideological glasses

Much as the fish does not notice the water it swims in, capitalist ideology is so deeply embedded in the way we consider issues that it’s hard to see outside it.

And it’s only when we do step back and consider things from first principles that we notice the ideological content itself.

This phenomenon is particularly ubiquitous in mainstream, “respectable” discussion of economic issues, where the regulations and institutions that enforce capitalism are implicitly assumed to be laws of physics that cannot be broken, and all discourse takes place within bounds defined by the status quo of established capitalist norms.

Consider the issue of the ageing population, retirements, and superannuation. As people live longer and demographics shift accordingly, a larger proportion of the population is over retirement age.

The mainstream discourse focusses on the economic burden: how will fewer working age people afford to fund more retirees? Rollbacks to government pensions are justified accordingly: we are told the government simply cannot afford the bill.

Many countries also enforce compulsory retirement savings schemes, with similar justification: Public pensions will be insufficient to provide retirees with a decent standard of living and this will only get worse. And so citizens must accumulate private savings over their working life in order to fund their retirement age living.

But is any of this really reducing the economic “burden”? It’s instructive to consider two contrasting scenarios, involving a hypothetical retiree.

Retiree A vs Retiree B

Which of these scenarios presents a greater burden to the society in which they live?

Conventional wisdom tells us that B is somehow “self-sufficient”, and that A is a terrible burden straining an already overburdened working population.

But in fact, their burden on working age people is exactly equivalent: Both consume $50 000 of resources per year.

Each year, both will consume food grown and produced by workers that year. If instead of savings, Worker B had accumulated preserved food stored in a bunker somewhere, it would be different. But this is not how resources are produced and consumed in modern economies (more on this later).

This is a quite obvious and seemingly benign observation, but poses some interesting questions.

What is the point of private individual retirement accounts? Instead of compulsory payments, why not simply tax that money instead and use it to provide reasonable pensions?

Running one giant government-owned pension fund instead of individual accounts for every single adult in the country would mean vastly reduced administration costs, better investment returns (because of lower fees and the ability of a larger fund to invest in more sophisticated ways) and less paperwork and unpleasant interaction with bureaucracy for ordinary people.

Lack of pensions is a psychological tool to frighten workers

If governments can simply raise cash and guarantee to pay reasonable pensions, why don’t they? Why does the national dialogue pretend the system is broken and unsustainable and needs reforms, and rollbacks, and cuts, and means-testing?

Because fear is a great way to keep people working harder than they need to. A guaranteed comfortable retirement with no threat of dire poverty in old age means much less need to accumulate a high level of savings throughout one’s working life. And that would mean workers might feel comfortable doing things like generally working less, taking more time off, and working lesser paid but more rewarding jobs.

All of these things would be wonderful for quality of live and overall well-being, not to mention the environment, but terrible for capitalism, which wants us to spend as much of our precious lives as possible as exploited economic units.

(A system where individuals must accumulate a large pool of savings is also terribly unfair to those who die early: Not only do they suffer from an early death, but while alive had to toil for countless additional hours to generate their savings, the fruits of which they will never be able to enjoy.)

Any time you see retirement being cast as individual responsibility rather than collective societal duty, recognize it for what it is: fear-mongering in service of capitalism, and a stick to force us to work even harder.

We ought instead to focus on the more serious economic burden: The owners of capital, who consume an enormous proportion of all economic output through idle ownership rather than work.

How to actually prepare for an ageing population

We noted earlier that merely saving doesn’t reduce the claim on the economy by retired people. In fact, those with more savings are likely to consume more in retirement, resulting in an increased burden!

We noted too that retirees consume generally consume current economic production. However, this is not the case for durable goods. Things like dishwashers, cars, air conditioning units, housing insulation produced by workers and purchased by other workers can provide quality of life enhancements for years into a person’s retirement.

So the real answer to how best to provide for retirees is the same answer as to how to provide for everybody: Build a sustainable economy that produces goods and services that people actually need.

Modern economies contain whole sectors that don’t actually produce anything of value: industries like finance and advertising should be aggressively regulated out of existence, and those resources redirected into meeting actual human needs.

Simple solutions

As with many of the symptoms of capitalism, the solutions are simple. In this case, the answer is to just guarantee old people the money they need.

There are plenty of resources to go round, and to distribute these in a way that maximizes quality of life isn’t complex.

The real challenges are not practical, but political and ideological. We cannot simply reform the system to make it work for everybody until we fundamentally challenge capitalism, and recognize that the system itself cares very little about the quality of life of ordinary people.