From the July 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard
Once we reach the age of 65 (if we are a man) or 60 (if we are a women), we are officially classified as being "old". Old means no longer considered able to contribute brain power or physical power to enable our employers to make a profit out of us. When a horse is past its best, it is retired or "put out to grass", where it spends the rest of its days sleeping, eating and, presumably, having an enjoyable time. But this picture of retirement is far from accurate where workers are concerned.
Many people of retirement age are still capable of doing full-time work—but they are usually not allowed to continue in the work for which they were trained. The excuses for this are obvious—supposedly failing health and strength, the need to make way for younger men because of high unemployment and that we have "earned" a rest after a lifetime of working. But what if the "right to rest" is not wanted? In capitalist society we are trained and conditioned to use our time for working, with little or no education on how to use our leisure time, with the result that many retired people do not know what to do with all that time on their hands.
However, it is much more likely that the "right to rest" is not possible. People need to continue working in order to survive, or to try and maintain the already very low standard of living they have had all their working lives. Unfortunately, even though someone in their sixties may have as much to give in the way of experience or knowledge as a younger person, they will have to settle, if they can find any, for low paid, boring work. An "old age pensioner" or, as the Americans coyly put it, a "senior citizen", falls into the same category as a school leaver or an unqualified woman with children—dirt cheap labour. So, in order to supplement the pittance the government or our ex-employers kindly give us a reward for a lifetime of wage slavery, a pensioner has to spend more years, sometimes literally until they die, doing badly paid, tedious work. On top of this any money earned will be added to the pension, and tax will be taken off if the resultant amount exceeds the personal allowance.
These, however, are the lucky ones. Some people, through ill-health or the ability to find even the most badly paid employment, cannot work and have to live on their old age pension. Out of this miserly sum people still have to pay for food, rent, rates, heating, lighting and all the other expenses of modern living. This is particularly difficult in winter, when many old people die of hypothermia (literally die of cold) because they cannot afford to turn on a fire.
Even if people have planned for their retirement and have managed to save a small amount of money, this is soon eaten away by depreciation and bills and, if they have the misfortune to live longer than their savings, they are then as badly off as the rest.
At present a single person on a state pension receives £23.30 a week. For a married couple, the man receives this £23.30 and is given an extra £14.00 for his wife, making a grand (or not so very grand) total of £37.30 a week. The state obviously believe that two can live very much cheaper than one. Before November 1979 these figures were £19.50 for a single person and £31.20 for a married couple, the wife receiving just £11.70 a week. Obviously a woman is considered to have less needs that a man. If her husband were to die, she would receive the single's person's pension plus a widow's pension and would be much better off.
The November 1979 increase in pensions amounted to 19.87 per cent. As inflation at the time was running at something like 17 per cent, for a short time they didn't get any poorer. However since then inflation has risen to over 20 per cent, so old age pensioners are significantly worse off than six months ago, To add insult to injury, the November 1980 increase in pensions is to be a derisory 16.5 per cent, being an increase to £27.15 for a single person and £43.45 for a married couple. This time the lucky wife of our old age pensioner receives £16.30 a week.
Peter Townsend in his book Poverty in the UK states that 14 million people in Britain are living on or below the poverty line. By far the largest proportion of these people are made up of the disabled, the long-term unemployed and, of course, the old. Some reward for a lifetime of working.
Capitalism's nuclear family—with one man, one woman and their children—isolates people into small, tight-knit groups. When a person becomes old, if they have no children, or children who are not prepared or not able to take care of them, they are obviously very vulnerable. If they have no partner and no family they will be totally isolated, having to fend for themselves, which becomes increasingly difficult as age takes its toll on their health and mobility.
An old person who loses their partner, usually someone they have spent the major part of their adult life with, obviously has to face not only that loss but the fact that they will very likely either be a burden on their families or have to go into strange surroundings in an old people's home or a hospital. To lose a partner is hard to bear at the best of times, but when a person is old and faces these options they are often driven to despair. Left on their own they will neglect themselves and not eat properly. The press constantly carries stories of old people dying of hypothermia, malnutrition and other treatable conditions and not being discovered for weeks; or an old person who is no longer able to look after himself can be put into an old people's home, where he is fed, kept clean and warm and left to vegetate. The only pleasure he has to look forward to is a possible visit from a family member—if he has a family.
Many, more unlucky (if lucky is a word that can be used in this context) old people end up in hospital wards or in mental homes where they lie in bed all day with no stimulation to keep them in any way active or interested in life, just waiting to die.
It is typical of capitalism, that as we reach old age we do not have a great deal to look forward to. A system whose purpose is profit can have no place for anyone unable to contribute towards this aim.