We've never had much time for Janet Street-Porter. A genial plonker, we thought. But as the advancing years tighten their grip on her and her magnificent teeth, she seems to be developing a certain amount of good sense – if this recent article is anything to go by ...
For too long pensioners have been ignored, fed hollow promises and taken for granted. They are supported by armies of young advisers who talk in meaningless sound-bites and who probably spend more on lunch in a trendy Japanese restaurant or on a groovy Paul Smith suit than we get from our state pensions. There’s a growing movement that is out to trash pensioners. It’s led by some newspaper columnists and economists, who have suggested we’re getting preferential treatment.
Have you noticed that two words have become inextricably linked: the words ‘pensioner’ and ‘problem’? Every day, pensioners are routinely referred to in terms of the P-word. We’re viewed as sick, we need care, we clog up hospitals, we need feeding and cleaning. If only we’d all snuff it at 70, turn up at Drop In And Die Centres, then there would be enough housing to go around. The NHS would function so much better as wards would have spare beds, doctors wouldn’t claim they were overworked, and councils could save millions on services (I’m only joking about the Drop In And Die bit, but I bet a trendy think-tank has costed this option).
We pensioners have the temerity to be around in large (and increasingly vocal) numbers. Yes, previous generations retired at 60, got on with the gardening and were grateful for any crumbs society tossed their way — but those days are over for good. We baby-boomers are the first generation to have re-defined ageing. Quite simply, more than three-quarters of us are savvy, well-educated, high-tech silver surfers, and many of us have absolutely no intention of giving up work. Work keeps us young, exercises our minds, and utilises our years of experience. More of us than ever are acquiring new skills, and the number of us who are taking up apprenticeships has doubled.
Indeed, the Department For Work And Pensions recently published a new guide for employers on how to hire and retain older workers in order to build a ‘multi–generational workforce’, and said they should consider offering apprenticeships and work-experience opportunities to people of any age. For the truth is we have people skills that youngsters sadly lack. We’re customer-friendly and ‘service’ is not a swear-word to the over-60s.
We’re active and exercise more than those in their 20s. We are national treasures, not liabilities, and politicians ignore us at their peril. Yes, dementia afflicts a proportion of the elderly but, in the main, we are fighting fit.
My rage at the subtle drip-drip of baby-boomer-bashing culminated in April when Work And Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith had the cheek to suggest that ‘wealthier’ pensioners might like to hand back their winter fuel allowances in order to help the Treasury balance its books. My subsequent Mail column, telling IDS where to shove this patronising suggestion, struck a chord with readers. Hundreds emailed and wrote in the biggest response I’ve had to a column in years. And 100 per cent agreed with me that pensioners represent a huge asset to Britain; that we are not a bunch of spongers to be denigrated and treated like work-shy benefits cheats.
I pointed out that politicians have subsidised restaurants at Westminster and a wide range of bargain hostelries to drink in, as well as their lavish expenses. They have second homes on which they can claim loads of allowances, and many avail themselves of the opportunity to employ family members at our expense.
As a baby-boomer born to working-class parents, I have the work ethic ingrained in every pore. I have paid all my taxes and national insurance contributions, and I shun debt. The vast majority of pensioners who aren’t as well off as me scrimp and save and collect coupons. They budget carefully and look for bargains online. They put on more clothes rather than turn up the heating. Many — if they are lucky enough to have an employer who doesn’t find an excuse to make them redundant when they turn 65 — carry on working; or they find part-time work. Pensioners care for their partners when they get sick and look after their grandchildren for free — saving the State millions.
Grey Power matters as a political force because we’re growing in numbers. Indeed, demographics mean baby-boomers and older citizens will decide the next election. A quarter of all voters will be 65 or more when we go to the polls in 2015. Knowing how our parents struggled through a world war to preserve our democracy, we stoically vote in all weathers and regard it as a precious right that must be exercised — unlike the apathetic young or the disaffected middle-aged, trapped by mortgages they can’t afford and the cost of educating their children.
Unlike businessmen, we aren’t employing super-smart accountants to minimise our tax bills. Not only have we seen our savings and pensions shrink in value, we then get taxed if we dare to work. If our houses are worth a lot of money (partly because of a shortage of new housing), why should we be threatened with a property tax? Our modest homes are our nest-eggs, and we’ve spent all our lives paying off our mortgages.
Most of us live in semis, or bungalows, or small terrace houses where we brought up our children. Not swanky detached new-builds with swimming pools and kitchen gardens. Nothing TV property guru Kirstie Allsopp could get excited about.
As for the cost of looking after an ageing population, new legislation means that by 2017 we pensioners are going to have to contribute a large sum of money — £75,000 — to pay for our own care. That’s more than double what the Government-commissioned Dilnot report into funding elderly care said would be fair. Meanwhile, the Government’s contribution to paying for our care will be covered by freezing the inheritance tax threshold at £325,000 until 2018. In other words, they are imposing a stealth tax on us.
And despite the fact that 636 councils around the country pay their top staff in excess of £150,000 a year — higher even than the Prime Minister’s salary of £142,000 — they are now charging older people more money for their home help. A survey of 64 councils found that people were paying, on average, £655 more this year than last for home care.
The hatred against us pensioners is growing. In 2011, journalist Philip Inman wrote in the Guardian: ‘Baby-boomers are our secret millionaires … even the poorer over-50s need to recognise they are going to take out of society more than they put in.’
This year, columnist Steve Richards wrote an article in the Independent headlined: ‘Labour can’t keep bus passes for millionaires.’
The Institute for Economic Affairs think-tank reckons we pensioners have received ‘special treatment’ — and estimates £16 billion could be saved by halting above-inflation rises in the state pension and abolishing free bus passes and winter fuel allowances. They say a further £5 billion could be saved if the pension age was raised to 66 in 2015, instead of 2020 as planned.
A few weeks ago, weedy Nick Clegg urged David Cameron to ‘grasp the nettle’ and cut some pensioners’ benefits, saying: ‘I think it’s right to ask very wealthy pensioners to make sacrifices … just as we’re asking families on much lower incomes.’ And Andrew Haldenby, of the think-tank Reform, said: ‘Pensioners have received a level of support that cannot now be afforded.’
I would just like to know who exactly are all these ‘millionaire pensioners’ that these people loathe so much. All the rich people I come across have complicated tax arrangements and expensive accountants to minimise their tax. We’ve also seen a long list of famous (youngish) comedians and entertainers exposed as people who use tax-avoidance schemes which enable them to pay as little as one per cent of their income in tax to the Treasury.
When it comes to big businesses, household names such as Amazon, Starbucks and Google all pay minimum corporation tax in the UK because of clever interpretation of our tax laws, and the fact they base their offices outside Britain. The truth is that there are two rules for taxpayers in this country: one rule for the rich and another for the poor.
And for our leaders to demand that some pensioners, rather than the chief executive of a FTSE 250 company, sacrifice their benefits when they’ve already paid a higher proportion of their weekly wage in tax for around half a century of dreary, poorly-paid work is political suicide.
Pensioners are the frugal generation, who have worked constantly, putting a little away for a rainy day, living within their means and loath to claim benefits. A perfect example is Kathleen Jackson, who emailed to tell me she had left school at 14, juggled two jobs and worked as a cleaner to make ends meet and support four sons. She resents being made to feel like a ‘malingerer’ by Government ministers. Another reader, Margaret Lavender, says she has never claimed benefits. Similarly, Gordon — ‘only 87’ — lives frugally and doesn’t smoke or drink.
Such people are resentful when they see single mothers and immigrants being handed generous welfare benefits despite having contributed little or nothing to society.
As for abolishing bus passes, pensioners are the people who actually keep rural bus services running, by using them during the day. In any case, doctors say the more we get out of our homes and travel, the better for our mental health. Julia Pickles fumes: ‘We have paid masses over the years to travel in grim conditions on the most expensive public transport in the world. So “sod off” to anyone to says we should give up our cherished bus passes.’
Joyce Dixon has just completed three weeks of daily hospital treatment, during which time her bus pass was essential. Diana, from Witney, points out that ‘people who stay at home become stiff, lonely and need expensive help’. Angela and Jim Murphy agree. Using public transport, they say, ‘we can go for days-out with a picnic … we struggle, we’re proud, we manage’. The point is that pensioners with bus passes keep small town centres alive, even if they’re just searching for bargains in Poundland and lunching on two-for-one deals in caffs.
Many readers considered the winter fuel allowance of £100-£300 ‘pretty meagre’ given the cost of heating oil and the severe winters of the past two years. Without it, wouldn’t more pensioners with pneumonia or hypothermia be a drain on the NHS?
Readers suggested that we will give up bus passes and free TV licences when Clegg, IDS and Cameron reduce their expenses and travel allowances and give up their chauffeur-driven cars. Many have seen your pensions plummet in value through mismanagement, and see bankers still earning huge salaries while they’re paying tax on your savings accounts.
As for Mr Cameron’s notion of the Big Society, many feel — rightly — that they have been doing their (unpaid) bit for years. They've cared for grandchildren, volunteered for local charities, and now they’re helping out at the food banks opening all over the country. Dorothy Levett, 78, wants ‘wrinklies to take to the streets — in my case with my walking stick — and show MPs that we mean business’.
I couldn’t agree more. In debt-ridden Spain, the pensioners’ movement is protesting and marching to retain their rights. Let’s do the same thing here. As I said earlier, at the next election, a quarter of all voters will be 65 or older. By 2050, it will be a third. It’s time to start flexing our muscles. Time for Grey Power to stop being humble and start being Very Cross Indeed.
The GOS says: Yes, well said, that woman. But do you mind if I just point out that I was saying pretty much the same thing several years ago? Where were you then?
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