Leaders: Change needed to meet retirement challenge

AS LIFE expectancy continues to grow and we face the prospect of living longer than previous generations, thinking on pensions has failed to keep pace with changing expectations of how we will spend our later years.

The state pension was never intended to provide a generous income. Picture: Ian Georgeson

A number of unrealistic assumptions continue to exert a grip on the public imagination, not least that in retirement we can continue to live in the manner to which we have become accustomed during our working lives.

Advertising aimed at older people has not helped – magazines are full of healthy-looking silver-haired folk enjoying dinner on luxurious cruises, or playing tennis somewhere hot, or striding out on sundry adventures in exotic corners of the Earth.

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The reality most of us face is somewhat different. At the heart of the misunderstanding is the role the state pension is expected to play in our time as OAPs.

The state pension was never intended to provide a generous income to allow a life of ease in our later years. Instead, its function was to provide pensioners with the basics – heat, shelter, food – to avoid them falling into degrading poverty. Any income over and above this was the responsibility of the individual, who would be encouraged throughout their working life to put money aside.

Many people, however, do not regard the state pension as a back-up – they regard it as their main income during retirement. Often this is down to a tendency to approach pension planning with a mindset of heroic procrastination, putting off for decades what should be key life decisions.

People know they should be saving more for their later years – or saving anything, in an alarming number of cases – in much the same way they acknowledge they should drink less alcohol, or exercise more, or phone their mother. But the business of life is endlessly distracting.

The result is a pensions crisis with which society is only beginning to grapple, and which goes to the heart of a debate on what we expect the state to provide for us, in addition the healthcare and social care that form the bedrock of the welfare state.

The notion of retiring in one’s 50s and enjoying a full and active life of leisure for the following three decades is, for most people, a cruel joke – unless they have been planning for that eventuality from the moment they were paid for their first paper round.

Our whole approach to old age in terms of health, work, leisure and income needs a fundamental overhaul to meet the new realities of a rapidly changing society. The secret will be to look for the positives in these changes.

The artificial dividing line between “work” and “retirement”, for example, is increasingly redundant. The challenge is to continue working with a smaller workload, utilising a skillset built up over a lifetime. As PJ O’Rourke memorably noted, “age and guile beat youth, innocence and a bad haircut”. Now that is a retirement plan.

We must not panda to pregnancy hopes

THE field of panda obstetrics might once have been thought a specialist area of academic interest. But since Edinburgh Zoo became home to Tian Tian and Yang Guang in December 2011, much of Scotland has become fascinated with the reproductive habits of these giant black-and-white visitors from China.

Not only do we know that a show of panda gymnastics – notably handstands – on the part of the male is a prelude to him getting ready for the very short mating season, we also know that panda pregnancy is complicated and not at all straightforward. More than in other species, for example, a conception often does not lead to a full and successful pregnancy. Sometimes, as is believed to have happened to Tian Tian last year, the foetus is “absorbed” before it can be properly implanted in the womb.

Adding to the air of mysteriousness and uncertainty, pandas can often have phantom pregnancies, where behavioural and hormonal changes in the female give a misleading impression of pregnancy.

So, a recent rise in Tian Tian’s levels of progesterone in the past week is maybe nothing to get excited about. All of which has, over the past few years, led us to keep our expectations in check when it comes to the panda mating season and the waiting game that follows.

It is good news that Tian Tian is believed to have conceived – who can resist the thought of Scotland having its very own baby panda? But the Champagne – and the vintage bamboo shoots – must be kept on ice for the time being until we see how things develop.

Until then, we have no option but to keep our hopes for a happy event under control.