The argument for extending working lives, was (and still is) that people must work longer because they are living longer. One result of this policy was that state pension ages would be increased – to reduce pension costs and in effect, force people to work longer.

Now, as things stand, in 2028 the state pension age (SPA) for men and women will be 67. The independent review of the State Pension Age[1] by John Cridland has recommended that from May 2028 it should rise to 68 and then to 69 by 2039. This recommendation will probably be accepted – so it is not too far-fetched to predict a state pension age of 70 by 2050.

But changes in life expectancy are now moving in unexpected directions. Despite this, Government Ministers continue to argue that our increasing life expectancy means working longer. The narrative has been oversimplified and the changing realities are not presently recognised. Young people who are being told, “You will not get your pension until you are in your seventies,” should sit up and take notice.

Not only is there is little acknowledgement of the differences between increasing life expectancy (LE) and healthy life expectancy (HLE), but the idea that life expectancy is on an ever receding horizon, can no longer be taken for granted.

In fact, in some parts of the UK, life expectancy is plummeting (according to figures released by the Office for National Statistics). The decline is most noticeable in the former industrial areas, which have a legacy of ill-health and industrial disease that will continue take its toll, probably for the next thirty or forty years.

Major inequalities are hidden away in the averages. Life expectancy, healthy life expectancy and disability free life expectancy (DFLE) all vary by region, areas within regions, ethnicity, gender and socio-economic position.

Rates of self-reported ill-health vary enormously across society. (They are much higher among older people from ethnic minority groups than white British, for example.) Having a blanket “one size fits all” state pension age (or de facto retirement age for many) no longer makes sense. It is time for health and the hardness of jobs to be recognised by earlier pensions for some.

Poor people who are likely to die earlier, have to wait for their state pensions until the same age as the better off, who may be able to afford to retire on their personal savings, well before SPA. The working poor and less healthy are in effect subsidising the longer pensions of the better off healthy.

We continue to be told that we are living in an era when it will become “normal” to live into one’s mid or later eighties while one third of children born today may see their hundredth birthdays. We will see. By way of contrast, it was announced earlier this year that the life expectancy of American children had fallen for the second consecutive year for the first time since 1963.

Here in the UK, a group of four academics have accused the Department of Health of ignoring repeated warnings of stagnating life expectancy. Professor Martin McKee of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine commented that recent trends had called into question the proposals to increase state pension age. Professor Danny Dorling of Oxford University described the change in demographic trends as, “The worst in Europe… when it comes to progress since 2010.”

At the same time, British workers are looking forward to worst state pensions of any major country, according to a report by the OECD.

Strangely, the idyllic picture of “early retirement” was hardly on anyone’s radar until the 1970s and 80s, but then it became the norm, often encouraged by early retirement packages. Now this has changed. Workers can only expect rising state pension ages while early retirement packages are mostly off the agenda.

While the nature of work has changed and jobs are rarely as dangerous and unhealthy as they once were, rising incidence of diseases linked to obesity and alcohol consumption means life expectancy figures are only the crudest of guides as to how long we can expect people to work until retirement.

The conundrums of living longer, ageing healthily and remaining active in later life cannot be tackled unless workers exert influence over their working environments and take charge of their own life and career plans. This has to be a collaboration – a social partnership endeavour, involving employers and employees.

The EU funded ASPIRE project, is working to share knowledge on how to follow the foregoing agenda. It is currently holding workshops, gathering data and planning to launch a good practice guide a training module and a community of interest later in 2018.

Follow PrescientSpheres on twitter @crystal_balls     and ASPIRE @agediversit