So, Paul McCartney played Glastonbury the other day and became, at 80, the oldest person to do so.
It’s all right for some — we can’t all afford to live to be 80.
I look at those photos of Macca with his guitar and his band and his distinguished rocker’s waistcoat and I don’t see a musical legend, I see a person who knows where his next meal is coming from. I see a person who not only knows where his next meal is coming from but who can stroll into a restaurant and order a meal without wondering how it is going to affect his budget or affect his ability to be able to eat in the rest of the month or whether he’ll miss that money ten years down the road when he can’t work any longer. I see a person who doesn’t have to worry about where he will be living when he eventually retires, I see a person who doesn’t have to worry about being a burden on his kids or whether he’ll be able to arrange home help if he needs it. I see a person who is still working at an age most people have retired because he enjoys it, not because he has to and because he gets a reasonable financial return on his efforts. I see a person who can sail off into the sunset with some dignity.
Fair dos to Macca — he’s a working class bloke who in contrast to most people of wealth has actually done something to earn his money other than be burped into it from between their mother’s knees.
For many people, age is not jolly and that’s not just because we’re not going to appear at Glastonbury or even bop there.
We are the precariat, who when we should be thinking about retiring are wondering how we are going to be able to support ourselves in the future, how long we are going to be able to keep working and how we will be able to keep a roof over our head once we are too old to work. We are wondering whether we may actually die on the job (or whether our jobs will kill us). We are wondering where we will live when/if we become unable to pay our rent/mortgage. We can see ourselves moving full time onto a park bench.
I have mine staked out already, a little reserved sign that I nicked from the local pub nailed to it. I have agonised about choosing one with overhanging branches — on one hand they help keep the sun off, on the other they provide perches for birds to sit and shit on you. UV or poop — a life decision to chew on.
For the precariat, an early death seems like a smart financial move. How else will you afford to persist?
Not so long ago, a dear relative of mine who gave up work at 59 breezily asked: have you thought of retiring? It’s great! I didn’t reply that I can’t afford to retire. A good friend, several years ago when we were in our early fifties, asked me earnestly over a pint whether I thought he should take early retirement or hang on until the upper retirement age, whatever that was, and reap a bigger pension. It was a real thing for him to think about. Both the friend and the relative had sensible jobs that came with retirement plans, both were looking into a future that doesn’t resemble mine or that of many other people.
Well, we should all get down and get proper jobs with proper retirement plans, bootstrap ourselves while we can still bend over to grab our own shoes — or bend over in the office to grab our own ankles.
Another conversation over beer: A well educated friend, a PhD with a long and consistent working history, self-employed, told me of his precariousness. He told me that if anything happened and his income stopped, he would be able to live for only a couple of months. Something did happen: Covid. The pandemic whisked away his livelihood. I don’t know what happened to him — he hasn’t answered any of my messages in the last couple of years, which I find ominous. Yet another: he went to the same college as me, did the same course, has worked with diligence, done the right thing — peaked in some job where he wore a suit and had a nice BMW as a company car — has had umpteen employers go bankrupt on him, and now, when he should be putting his slippered feet up with a mug of cocoa or a tab of acid, finds himself doing agency work, shifting boxes in a DHL warehouse, stewarding football games, manning vaccination centres, and so on.
No, hard work doesn’t lead inevitably to riches — if it did, all the women in Africa would be millionaires (thanks to George Monbiot for that one). Nor does hard work lead inevitably to comfortable or secure sunset years. Aside from issues of feckless employers and contagion, some people may have conditions or circumstances that limit their ability to work. They may come from places or backgrounds that exclude them from opportunity. Many jobs do not come with even a proper contract and many people are condemned to the gig economy. Even for many in consistent work the future isn’t certain because even stable jobs often offer only subsistence wages and you don’t make a solid future out of that kind of sand.
I mean, a lot of people ask themselves on a daily basis, ‘Will I be needed’ — all together, now — ‘When I’m 64?’
Most jobs that provide for a future one way or another are in the public sector, which is being eviscerated by the ‘free’ market. In the private sector proper pension plans for ordinary people are as common as unicorn bollocks and where they do exist they are being plundered and reduced by the employers — the pensions, not the bollocks. See, for example, the current rail and underground staff dispute. Those workers have actually seen their pensions reduced. State pensions are being reduced too.
Let’s just stop and let that sink in, shall we? You work twenty, thirty, forty years responsibly predicating your retirement on X, only, on the cusp of giving up work, to find that your pension is now X-minus a chunk or doesn’t even exist. Did you have a say in that? Who decided that? Did you not work properly to fulfil your end of the bargain? What are you supposed to do? What recourse do you have? Who do you vote for? How is this not theft? Why are there no laws to control it? (That was a trick question because none of the three biggest parties in the UK would help you out.)
The answer must be a new wave of political consciousness — but I am getting ahead of myself.
While wages have stagnated, rent and house prices have gone up, and now in the UK taxes are going up, the cost of living has gone through the roof; in the UK you’ll soon have to pay for your health care. Add into that the effects of climate breakdown on the economy … If you have to choose between energy and feeding your kids, if you are so consumed by managing the now, how can you plan for the future?
I mean, really, what are you going to do? How exactly are you going to manage? Where is all this going? What kind of world is this in which we look at people and size them up according to how well you think they can afford to stay alive?
Yes, death might be a smart financial move but you may not have much choice in that either as life expectancy in the poorer areas of the UK is actually falling for the first time in 100 years. All this contrasts glaringly with the long lifespans of the most secure — 80-year old rockers, and the Queen turning 96 this year. It’s almost as if security and longevity were somehow bound together.
But what happens if you get to those venerable years and become dependent on help? Bedridden, unable to look after yourself? In my experience to date you have to sell your house or any other assets you have and give it to the fucking government before they will arrange anyone to take care of you. The process of evaluation for care is intrusive and humiliating. One elderly gentleman I know (now completely bedridden) was compelled to strip in the presence of two men with clipboards and take a shower, on which he was graded. Again, this gentleman had worked all his life.
Think on that. You do the right thing, you contribute to the national wealth, and then when you need help they demand you sell your house and watch you shower yourself.
To face financial insecurity in old age is not a sign of fecklessness or irresponsibility. All this boils down to: the economic system. Unregulated, unrestricted, it treats people as cash cows — minions, vassals, squeaking Munchkins — squeezing as much out of them as possible. It uses people and destroys life chances. But, again, that’s another conversation and I’ll never finish here if I get into that.
So get up on the stage at Glasto at 80? Nah, not bothered. I’d just be happy to afford to live that long.