Identity politics and retirement

Researchers of the Dutch demographical institute NIDI argue in an article that retirement age should be lower for people who have a relatively low level of education than for people who have a high level of education. They would like to introduce three categories of people, based on their level of education. In their proposal (depending on the chosen scenario) the category of people with the lowest level of education retires 4 to 5 years earlier than the category with the highest level of education, and the middle category will end up somewhere in the middle. They state that there are two reasons for this proposal: people with a low level of education tend to start earlier with working, and they tend to die earlier.

In summary, they argue for applying identity politics to the setting of the age of retirement; i.e., they divide people into groups along some demographic criteria (in this case education level), make a comparison in some areas between the averages of the groups (in this case life span and age of entering the job market), and distribute advantages and disadvantages over people based on the group in which they end up (in this case with respect to retirement age), regardless how distant each individual person is to the average of the group they are assigned to. That this approach is an aberration is clear from the fact that according to the proposed system, an academically educated sociologist who cannot get a job in sociology and thus works in construction, retires at a far later age than an uneducated person who works in construction.

The researchers make at least two basic mistakes. The first mistake is that “correlation does not imply causation” (as this is a mantra for social scientists it surprises me highly that they make this mistake). The fact that someone has a low level of education is not the cause for them dying earlier. The reason that people with a low level of education tend to die earlier is that they tend to live more unhealthy lives — on average, they smoke more often, drink more, use drugs more often, eat more unhealthy food, etcetera. Also, some of the jobs that low-educated people hold are quite detrimental to physical health (e.g., jobs in construction). But that does not mean that everybody with a low level of education lives unhealthily or works in a physically demanding job. Neither is the starting age of work life necessarily lower for a low-educated person than for a high-educated person (in fact, unemployment is higher among low-educated people than among high-educated people). Moreover, despite the fact that on average high-educated people indeed start their work life later than low-educated people, that does not entail that they work less hours in total in their lives (in fact, high-educated people tend to spend much more time at their jobs than low-educated people).

The second mistake is that the level of education is not the demographic factor that has the biggest impact on how long people live. The factor that has the biggest impact is sex. Women live, on average, 7 to 8 years longer than men. If you are going to apply identity politics to retirement age, the logical first division that you have to make is splitting men from women, and then add 7 years to the retirement age for women. I am sure that the researchers from NIDI know this. However, I fully understand why this fact never comes up in the proposal of the researchers: bringing up this fact would be seen as “sexism.” But realistically speaking, if you want to use demographic factors to make retirement age more “fair” with respect to distribution between years of work and years of retirement, women should retire much, much later than men.

I can see that there is a “problem” in setting the age of retirement purely on the basis of birth year, in that the system is, from some perspectives, not fair. But the solution is not to apply identity politics on a grand scale, on the basis of level of education. As retirement basically should account for the fact that at some point people are too old to work in a particular job, the content of the job should be the only factor in determining retirement age. Therefore, a solution is to make age of retirement part of work packages. A possible implementation for such a solution is as follows:

The “standard” number of work years could be set to 40, or 480 months. You can retire when you have worked that long. However, in certain jobs, 12 months of work would be counted as longer, while in others it would be shorter. Any year after 20 years of age in which one does not work is counted as 9 months. If, for instance, a year of work in construction is counted as 14 months, someone who starts working in construction at 20 years of age, would retire at 54. If a job in academics would count a year of work as 10 months, someone who starts in academics at 25 would retire around 69. Without a job at any time in one’s life, “retirement” would begin at 73. Such a system would account for the kind of job that people do, the number of years that they work in different jobs, the age that they start working, the number of years that they work, etcetera. The most important advantage is that it would relate retirement age purely to the content of the work that someone does.

NIDI examines correlations between certain demographics and certain social facts. That is fine. But when they then notice a correlation which might make one think “it looks like some demographic is getting it in the shorts,” the solution is not to apply identity politics, create some demographic groups, and reward certain groups and punish others. The solution is to determine the cause of the “injustice” and try to deal with that cause. Or, if the cause proves to be an individual choice rather than a systemic issue, shrug and tell people that certain individual choices have negative consequences — if you want to be pedantic about it.

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