Retirement an age-old question

ANTHONY HUBBARD
Last updated 05:00 01/07/2012
Retirement
DAVID WHITE/Fairfax NZ

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John Key doesn't get much support from the great and the good for his refusal to lift the pension age. "He's on a hiding to nothing with this one," says renowned architect Sir Miles Warren. "I'm a bit disappointed with John Key," says eminent theologian Lloyd Geering. "I have huge respect for John Key," says opera diva Dame Malvina Major, "but I think the age should go up."

In fact, only one of the members of the Order of New Zealand who spoke to the Sunday Star-Times definitely said the age should stay at 65. That was Dame Miriam Dell, champion of women's rights. "It's up to the Government to find a way of financing it," she said.

Some, however, weren't sure what they thought. "Buggered if I know, dear," said one famous Kiwi, before quickly adding, "Don't quote me on that one." Former All Blacks captain Brian Lochore "hasn't got a strong opinion" but would like to see a cross-party group of MPs consider the question non-politically, "but that won't happen". The great former athlete, Murray Halberg, didn't know either but trusts Key and his Government "to do the right thing ... they do have the needs of our nation at heart".

Thirteen of the 25 New Zealand members of the Order gave an opinion (we didn't ask the three non-Kiwi members). Seven supported raising the age, five were unsure or non-committal, and one was opposed.

Here is what they said.

In favour of increasing the age to 67

SIR MILES WARREN, ARCHITECT, 83

"We simply can't afford it – simple as that. We're all living much longer. You know, when the retirement age of 65 was introduced in America, 65 was the average age of death. No, no, it's inevitable."

On Key's pledge to resign rather than increase the age, Warren said: "That's an unfortunate mistake of his ... I think he was fearful of losing the vote of the elderly people. Yes, but it was very unwise. All he needed to say was it should be considered in the future, perhaps."

Politicians might fear that doing a U-turn damaged their credibility, he agreed, but "I think he's on a hiding to nothing with this one".

Warren said he received the pension – "I think it floats into one's account somewhere" – but didn't depend on it. He is still working as an architect, and is redesigning the Christchurch Cathedral. "It's an awful bore to hang around from 65 to 85. I was far happier keeping on working."

Should wealthy people receive the state pension? "Well, the wealthy people have contributed all these years by taxation and so on. And if they're wealthy then obviously they pay taxation and of course it [the pension] is taxed in their hands."

Should people exhausted by a life of manual labour get the pension earlier? "Most labouring now has the assets of all sorts of mechanical gadgets which reduce their [burden]. The days of hard, heavy hewing are now greatly reduced."

JONATHAN HUNT, FORMER SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE, 73

The age has to be raised "because otherwise we're not going to be able to afford it. The average life expectancy of New Zealanders is growing".

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On Key's refusal to budge: "I'm not going to comment, I'm not commenting on that sort of issue ... I mean, people make these sorts of comments all the time. I can't see how you can avoid changing the age."

On the claim that the fiscal situation is not as bad as claimed: "Well, I'm not going to comment in that regard. I've looked at the thing, I've thought about it, and I've worked out there has to be an increase eventually in the age of eligibility."

The higher age should be phased in "over four or five years" to allow people to prepare for it. "That's a reasonable time."

Early pensions for those exhausted by manual work? "Well, I don't know what's the evidence for that. I haven't seen any statistics to back that up."

On Retirement Commissioner Diana Crossan's argument for special payments to those unable to continue working until 65 or 67: "Well, that's her opinion. I'm not going to comment on that any further. Thank you!"

SIR LLOYD GEERING, FORMER THEOLOGIAN, 94

The age should go to 67 "for all the arguments that have been put forward. People are living longer. They're working longer. Lots of people are working till they're 70 now, so I think it's a logical step.

"I'm a bit disappointed with John Key, that he can't see the force of this. I think everybody would actually congratulate him if he changed his mind. It's a sign of strength to change your mind when the circumstances look different."

The age should be increased gradually over time, and there must be provision for those in poor health to receive it earlier than 65.

Professor Geering said he has "been on the pension for 34 years. I mean, it's absurd, isn't it? I mean I was there when [National Prime Minister Robert] Muldoon brought it in at 60. I was opposed to that.

"I accepted it but in the end I pulled out of it for a couple of years. It got me into financial problems, I had so much income tax to pay at the end of the year, you know? So I gave it up for a bit."

CHRISTIAN KARLSON STEAD, WRITER AND CRITIC, 79

Professor Stead told the Star-Times in an email "from an internet shop in London" that he had been away from New Zealand for 10 weeks and hadn't followed the debate in detail. "All I can say at the moment is that it seems to me sensible, and possibly even ultimately necessary, to raise the age to 67. We are all living longer [too long perhaps? – I'm about to turn 80 but don't yet consider myself `retired']."

LADY JUNE BLUNDELL, 91

"Well, it's very awkward. I think the Government can't afford it as it is now. Well, I don't think any government could," said Blundell, widow of former governor-general Sir Denis Blundell and a noted supporter of community and welfare organisations.

She said she would be happy to see the age rise over time to 67, with plenty of time for people to prepare. She noted that Key had refused to increase the age, but "I think if people can't afford these things they have to change their mind. We have to do it in our own home."

DAME MALVINA MAJOR, OPERA SINGER, 69

Believes "very much" that the country can't afford to keep national super at 65. "I am in fear and trepidation at the extent of pressure put on the Government coffers for Christchurch. It's only got to have another earthquake somewhere in New Zealand and the country's in dire straits. I'm very aware of that."

Major, who recently shifted from Christchurch back to her home town of Hamilton, says "I have huge respect for John Key, and I know what's he's saying", but the age should rise. "We're all working much longer – I'm talking about myself and my peers – and we probably could do with waiting till 67.

"I can remember my father giving up work at 60 or whatever it was and the next thing we knew he was dead, you know? We are different, we have grown up differently from our parents. People were healthier nowadays and live much longer."

Besides, she says, many people want to keep working past 65.

"I've nearly reached the age where I want to be able to do my garden, I want to be able to read a book and lie in bed and smell the roses, but I can't give up completely because my mind needs to be kept occupied."

CARDINAL TOM WILLIAMS, 82

"I am reluctant to see the age of eligibility increase but I regard it as inevitable – simply because of the affordability of it in the future." The growing numbers of retired people meant that the pension at 65 would be "virtually unsustainable".

On John Key, Williams says: "I've got no opinion on Mr Key's opinion or his attitude towards his election promises and so on, but that doesn't affect my view."

However, he said, provision would have to be made for those who could not keep working. "In different occupations, mining for instance, and forestry work, people would have surpassed their physical capacity to carry on. And yet it may well be the only work for which they're qualified."

Williams retired as Archbishop of Wellington at 75, and was one of the cardinals who elected Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. Many of the clergy continue working till 75 – "a good number of our priests reach their 50th anniversary of their ordination" – and, at 82, the cardinal is relieving for the parish priest at Stoke.

Don't know or uncommitted DAME CATHERINE TIZARD, FORMER GOVERNOR-GENERAL, 81

"I don't know. I have detached myself from politics and all that sail in them, quite a lot. It's a pretty complex issue.

"I mean, it's a bit cheeky for all of us who have got [the pension] to come out and say, `Oh yes, make them work a little harder and longer' or something like that. I think you're asking the wrong lot! We're all geriatric, or most of us. I don't think Malvina would like to be called geriatric."

However, if the pension age had to be raised "the only decent way to do it is to phase it in gradually over a period of time so that people don't just get chopped off at the knees, so to speak.

"I fully realise that there's going to be a hell of a lot more older people in 20 years' time. But you know I think that to do anything in one stroke is too cruel."

At the same time, there had to be special benefits or help for those unable to keep working.

"Well, it would be nice to think that we have a compassionate society that would move someone on to a job that isn't physically exhausting or put them in an office or something like that."

Do we have a compassionate society? "I don't think so. I don't think we have."

KEN DOUGLAS, FORMER TRADE UNION LEADER, 78

"I haven't really thought about it, to be blunt." The question of the age of eligibility, however, could not be separated from other issues such as the health of the economy. "There's got to be initiatives from the Government to increase the wealth of the country, and the skills and the productivity of the country – otherwise nothing's going to be affordable."

The Government's austerity programme would increase the problem of affordability, rather than fixing it. And National's cut in the top personal tax rates would add to the growing gap between the average worker and the wealthy. "You can't deal with the simple question of superannuation in isolation."

The issue was complicated by the fact that there had been "a significant increase in the moderately well-off middle class as opposed to manual workers who have ended their working lives as industrial cripples."

Unions had been weakened but "they'll come back again, that's the thing. I think they're on the way back now, really. Austerity programmes are a very, very good thing to focus people's minds".

SIR MURRAY HALBERG, FORMER ATHLETE, 78

"I don't know. I'm not a politician, I'm not privy to these things and like most New Zealanders it's a bit of a mystery [to me]."

On Key's pledge to keep the age at 65. "Well yeah, I have no problem with that. If that's how the Government of the day sees it, that's fine with me, yeah. It could change, who knows? It's a moving target."

Halberg said he was "sure whoever is in Government, they do have the needs of our nation at heart. I trust them to do the right thing, but within the bounds of the total budget of our country. To me, that's the thing".

Halberg, who said he would be 80 next year, was "very pleased to get it [the pension]".

SIR BRIAN LOCHORE, FORMER ALL BLACKS CAPTAIN AND COACH, 71

"I don't really have a strong opinion one way or the other, frankly. I suppose I should support increasing the age because I'm still working at nearly 72.

"I believe that, you know, some people probably are at their use-by date at 65 and others have the ability to keep going and actually choose to. So there should be some sort of mechanism, I think, so that if you stay working you're not penalised."

Lochore, who continues as a sheep and beef farmer in the Wairarapa, says some people such as builders might be exhausted by 65, but could still remain employed doing lighter work.

"If farming was still the same as it was 30 or 40 years ago, there's no way I'd still be doing it. It's become a much more mechanical operation – whereas then it was all physical stuff."

The political parties needed to consider what retirement age was best for New Zealand. "I wish that the parties would all just sit around a big table and say, `Well, let's be non-political for a while.' But that won't happen."

SIR OWEN WOODHOUSE, FORMER JUDGE, 95

An increase to 67 would not be much of a change for a large number of people in the community, who work till that age anyway. But "it's easy enough for me to talk – I was still working when I was in my 80s. But I don't want to push it on to other people," said Woodhouse, former president of the Court of Appeal and chairman of the Royal Commission that provided the blueprint for the ACC scheme.

People in sedentary jobs such as his would find it easier to keep working. But "if you're slaving away for example in a woolstore, as I did when I was a boy – to be required to keep on working in a physically difficult job gives rise to different problem.

"If it's regarded as necessary to increase the age I think there might need to be an exception for the reason I've just given."

Should wealthy people get the super? "To be honest I don't think it was right to reduce the maximum [personal] tax level and for that reason I don't think particularly wealthy people and middle comfortably off people need this [the pension]. But I think it costs more to have means tests than they're worth."

Woodhouse said the country should revert to higher personal tax rates at the upper income level. "I'm sticking my neck out to you – why am I doing this?"

The age should stay at 65

DAME MIRIAM DELL, FORMER PRESIDENT OF NATIONAL COUNCIL OF WOMEN, 88

"Older people have contributed by their taxes all their lives and have provided the monetary basis for national super. Raising the age of entitlement won't really help because we're living longer and thus will have as many years on super, if not more, as we do now.

"Once the baby boomers, who get blamed for everything, are gone, won't there be a smaller proportion of the population on super anyway?

"We already know that employers prefer to employ younger people because they do not cost as much. So having to work until 67 may be impossible for many."

Dell said she opposed an earlier pension age for Maori or lower-paid unskilled workers because "as soon as as you start making exceptions like that it's easily turned into discrimination".

Asked about Retirement Commissioner Diana Crossan's argument that the country couldn't afford the pension to stay at 65, Dell said, "I know she says that, I know Diana very well." But "I've got a cop-out phrase – `It's up to the Government to find a way of financing it'."

- Sunday Star Times

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