When George Osborne stands up tomorrow to deliver his budget, you would think that pensions are the only thing he will talk about, judging by the obsessive coverage of it in recent weeks.
The latest prediction is that he will do something to assuage the protests of the ‘Waspis’, women who have taken an immediate hit from the rise in the state pension age. An estimated 500,000 women born in the 1950s have seen the age at which they can draw their pension race up in the past five years, from 60 to 66.
Now the Commons work and pensions committee has suggested that these women should be able to draw the pension at the age they originally expected, but at a reduced rate.
The chancellor could easily throw an olive branch to the vocal Waspis, by looking kindly on something that will not actually cost the taxpayer any more money.
But what about everyone else?
The government has recently launched a review of the state pension age, which is a bit like saying train fares or broadband prices will be ‘reviewed’ – they never go down. We could be looking at plans to raise the official retirement age to 75 for today’s young workers.
According to respected industry commentator Tom McPhail of Hargreaves Lansdown, Osborne could at the same time as pacifying the Waspis “pave the way for everyone to have a more flexible state retirement age in due course”.
That would certainly fit with his ‘pensions freedom’ agenda, whereby anyone can now get their hands on any or all of their pension, turn it into cash, and spend it if they are so minded.
But a flexible state pension would run the same risks – allowing people to choose the ‘more now less later’ option and risk not having enough to live on in later life.
And imagine opting to take your pension at 60 – a reasonable aspiration, especially for people in stressful occupations such as teaching – and finding out that its value would be a fraction of what you would get if you hung on – and survived – until 75.
As part of my research this week for The Times, I spoke to two retired people who are affected by the changing state pension age. But their real bugbear was not their own situation, but what is coming down the track for the next generation. ‘You can’t expect teachers to work till they are 75,” one said. “I was looking ahead to the finishing line when I was 52.”
There is an intergenerational fairness inquiry under way at present in the Commons committee, and it has made some high-profile pronouncements. But is it really going to take a deep, broad look at the issues affecting the younger generation?
Its latest session is about to take evidence from six bodies – and four of them are lobby groups for older people and pensioners.
Lets hope it doesn’t fob us off with a few proposals to trim the budget for pensioner perks, while failing to engage in any meaningful way with the economic issues weighing down on a huge – but much quieter – swathe of the population…the ones who will actually pay the taxes needed to support the pensioner generation.