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Forcing workers to retire at 65 is madness

Every little boy who kicks a rolled-up sock past the imaginary goalkeeper guarding the imaginary goal in his bedroom door dreams of scoring the winning goal some day in a World Cup final. Something only a little less unrealistic secretly enters the imagination of young medical and scientific researchers when they publish their first paper and dream that someday they might collect the Nobel Prize.

The football fantasist soon realises that the closest he will get to achieving his dream is to walk the turf at Wembley or Old Trafford as part of a guided tour. Similarly, the closest most researchers will ever get to the Nobel Prize is to attend a lecture given by a winner.

I had my "guided tour moment" last year during a visit to the world-famous Dana-Farber Harvard Cancer Center in Boston, where I was part of a Science Foundation Ireland delegation of visiting Irish cancer researchers.

While there, I was offered the use of the recently vacated office of a recently retired researcher for an hour to catch up on phone calls and emails. Most of the contents had been packed away but there were still a few pictures, diplomas and awards on the walls ready for pick-up. I sneaked a peak and saw that the office belonged to Dr Baruj Benacerraf, who won the Nobel Prize for his pioneering work in immunology.

Dr Benacerraf had retired the previous week at the age of 89. If he had been an Irish academic, he would have been forced to retire 24 years earlier. Being based in the US rather than in our country extended the productive research life of this extraordinary man by approximately 50 per cent. He spent an additional 24 years doing work he loved, performing research, teaching students, winning grants and continuing his great contributions to science, medicine and humanity.

While Dr Benacerraf is an exception, in that most 89 year olds will probably still not have the physical energy and mental acuity to perform at a high level in Harvard, I met several other megastars in the world of cancer research in the Boston trip, men whose work had inspired me during my youth, and who were still seeing patients, teaching young doctors and performing fine research well into their seventies. In Ireland all of these great minds would, at this stage, have been devoted to nothing more cerebrally challenging than calculating golf handicaps and bingo.

Paradoxically, these folks who wished to continue working and paying tax would have been forced into accepting pensions by their financially destitute State. I have encountered several cases recently of highly productive Irish colleagues whose glittering careers were abruptly cut short because they reached their 65th birthday. All were publishing papers, seeing patients and paying tax. Perhaps more importantly, these people whose international achievements provided an on-going counterweight to the reputational battering that the far less clever people who ran our country and devised our retirement legislation had inflicted on us, were lost.

In my profession the temptation is to emigrate to more enlightened countries that do not have mandatory retirement, and in recent years there has been a veritable exodus of senior Irish medical academics into post-retirement positions in international medical schools, mostly in the Gulf states and in Malaysia.

Current mandatory retirement law is irrational and anachronistic. Most people will be aware of the extraordinary increases in average life expectancy that occurred in Ireland and other western countries over the 20th century. In 1900 the average life expectancy was 49 years, by the end of the century it was in the mid-seventies. It is now over 80 for women. Children who are born this year will likely live into their nineties.

People are taller, they are better nourished, they have lower rates of infirmity and paralysis in their sixties than ever before. Many of the conditions that stopped people from working now occur later, or are treatable.

The first systematic national pension plan was introduced by Otto von Bismarck in Germany in 1889, at time when child mortality rates were so high they brought the average life expectancy down to 45 years. It was introduced for the over 65s and the average person who reached the age of 21 could reasonably expect to live to 70, thus enjoying five pensionable years.

There is a compelling moral argument that individuals who signed on for terms of employment that guaranteed them the right to retire at 65 should not have their life-long aspiration dashed. Many in physically demanding jobs, such as fire fighting, policing, nursing and teaching, look forward to rest in retirement.

This right should be vigorously defended, and I am uncomfortable that the thrust of current legislation is focused more on delaying pension eligibility than on mandatory retirement.

There is, however, no logic to the notion that fit, active, productive individuals who wish to continue working and have no interest in retirement should be coerced into transforming over night from tax-paying workers into non-productive State dependents.

Outside of specified occupations, we should legislate to ban mandatory age-defined retirement in both the public and private service, while protecting the right to optional retirement. In addition to the craziness of basing social policy on health outcomes from the time of Bismarck and Queen Victoria, there is a compelling macro-economic argument for fundamental reform. There are two reasons why the populations of most western countries are ageing. As discussed, people are living longer, but the birth rate is also falling. In the absence of substantial immigration, the populations of most European countries are ageing rapidly. As a result, the ratio of tax-payer to pensioner is changing dramatically. In Bismarck's time, 2.5 per cent of the population lived to claim a pension, today the overwhelming majority will. Who will pay for them? If we do not act now to end mandatory retirement, we may be forced to reconsider the feasibility of optional retirement.

Senator John Crown is a consultant oncologist

Sunday Independent