Tuesday, June 8, 2010

This house would abolish compulsory retirement - Special guest Report Card !

By Stephen B
It is dawn, the birds are singing, and I've just been woken up by a gang of seniors running down the street setting light to bins and breaking bottles. I think it is high time that some useful occupation be found for these unruly mobs who are disrupting the tranquillity of our Parisian mornings. The question is, what? To business on the motion before the house: it is one that raises important questions, not only of a technical nature, but of ethics...

Proposition's line followed two axes: that compulsory retirement, due to its cost, is bad for the State (whoever or whatever that is... but presumably it is not the Nation?), and that it also impinges on an individual's freedom to continue working, especially at a time when the worker (not a factory worker or surface technician or brickie, you understand) is at his or her prime, his or her most useful. When they claim that our working environment has improved, this is a generalisation that strikes me as abusive, however. I am not convinced that a reform of the retirement system would be 'natural' or 'necessary' just because some people live longer, or that we are in a different stage of our demographic cycle. The link between abolishing compulsory retirement and the ability to pay is strained in First Prop: to me, the question is more one of wealth or productivity. For many, work is a burden, or to cite Marx, an alienation i.e. that there is a transfer of property. First Prop generously admits that we should prevent exploitation, but do they really believe that there could be no counterpart or compensation for 'choosing' to work longer? The fact that retirement can often be uninteresting could suggest that society should find other ways of involving its senior members, but does not necessarily mean that they should be occupied through paid employment. The argument on brain drain is interesting, but ignores one essential fact: that people are at their most creative in their early years, from the late teens into their twenties. Except for English teachers, that is.
Opposition's line is to say that the essential issue is that of saving the retirement system in France. The argument that we become more conservative in outlook as we become older is one that is borne out by observation, I think: we are indeed creatures of habit. However, First Opp seems to have gone one step too far in suggesting that we should stop older people working in order to let the young get a job. In periods of high youth unemployment, should we lower the age of compulsory retirement to say, 52, so that everyone under 30 can get a job? If that were the case, our productivity would have to increase substantially if a State-funded pension were to continue. For youth unemployment, surely it should be the social duty of engineers and the such like to create companies that hire people, rather than going to work for banks and insurance companies where their only use is to increase the already substantial wealth of pension funds, which ultimately induce anti-work practices in France? But I digress.
Second Prop painted a bleak picture of desperation by arguing that compulsory retirement is like a social prison. Where's my hanky? The idea seems to be that we enable some (the lucky few?) to continue working, and that this will save the pension system, as society will no longer have to pay for these people's pensions. There is however no suggestion of how many people would be likely to take this option. And is there a suggestion that the money thus saved would be redistributed to those on low pensions? Again, the mechanism is not considered in detail, so I remain dubitative on this point. But if we are simply redistributing the same pot – which Prop claim is too small- then the problem of overall cost will hardly be solved. I feel too that Prop have failed to consider the range of jobs done in society. Of course some doctors and other highly qualified people would want to carry on doing what they enjoy, but how generalisable is this? If only a handful benefit, then it would not seem to be for the general good of society, but for particular interests. I am not convinced that the sum of a few individual goods is enough, nor that this necessary evil would bring the benefits claimed.
Second Opp rebutted the brain drain argument of Prop; my own feeling that it was almost too silly to be taken seriously, but the point is clearly for Opp. The key argument they put forward is that of social rights, and not being forced to work past 60. This is convincingly put, and while it is not only a French exception, I warmed to this interpretation. That we do have certain national values, that is values that we as a community can share, and that mean we want to continue living together as a nation, strikes me as valid.
Closing Prop point out a weakness in the Opp line, in that you cannot simply slot a young person into the older person's position, as skills levels are not comparable. Unfortunately, Prop has not proved that their idea will save the state-funded system, but merely claimed this. The compulsory retirement age could indeed be fixed at 65 or 70 for everybody. And even if the right to work is a fundamental right, but is an unenforceable fiction, as I know of no-one who has successfully sued a government for not providing a job. True, there are multiple discriminations in society, but perhaps life is just unfair? We stopped children working down the mines some time ago, but you could argue that all human beings, whatever their age, should have the same right to seek gainful employment. I even know one child who wants to work, but is stopped from doing so by current legislation.
Closing Opp pointed out the necessity of having workable solutions, and this alone would often be enough for the reader to know where he or she stands on this motion. The criticism of using only 200 words to describe their reform is perhaps unfair, but the guarantee of being allowed to stop work at a certain age as a social advance is fairer. We all know that workers have complete freedom to choose whether or not to work on Sundays. And if they don't, we all know that workers lose their jobs. My own personal feeling is that society needs protection against unscrupulous bosses and/or terrible market forces. Compulsory retirement ages provide this guarantee.

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