Podcast

Retirement in the time of coronavirus

People in mid-life are a population under strain. Could a simple app, empower them to take control and improve their work, wealth and wellbeing?

Coronavirus has turned our world upside down. And whilst we are all embracing the ‘new normal’, what does it mean for retirement as we know it?

We know the majority of mid-lifers in the UK are worried about funding retirement, and almost a third adults in this age group are also concerned that the financial strain caused by the pandemic is negatively impacting their mental health, but not everyone is taking action. Why?

Alistair McQueen
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"We're launching our Mid-Life MOT as an app so anyone over the age of 45 can get hints and tips about how to manage their wealth,  work, and wellbeing."

Alistair McQueen

Head of Savings and Retirement at Aviva

Alistair McQueen

Hi everybody, my name's Alistair McQueen. I'm the head of savings and retirement at Aviva. Welcome to the Aviva podcast. Today I'm delighted to be joined by Dr Anna Dixon, the chief executive of the Centre for Ageing Better. Hi, Anna. 

Anna Dixon

Hi there, Alistair. 

Alistair McQueen

Thank you for joining us today. I'm speaking to you from my kitchen table in Yorkshire, where are you today? 

Anna Dixon 

I am at the top of the house, in what has become my home office, in Stoke Newington in north London. 

Alistair McQueen

Great, well, thank you for joining us, and we're here today to talk about ageing. And I'm delighted to have you. You are a bit of a hero of mine when it comes to the subject of ageing. So there's no better person to speak to. But for those who have not met you before, could you maybe introduce yourself and introduce the Centre for Ageing Better? 

Anna Dixon

Yeah, definitely. So, I am the chief executive of the Centre for Ageing Better. We are a charity that is funded by the National Lottery Community Fund and our mission is to create a society where we can all enjoy later life. So it's very positive, and how we do that is that we try and gather up evidence and data and research, and use that to make changes - both nationally and locally - in both policy and practical changes in communities, in workplaces, in housing, and in how healthy we are. So that's what we do. 

Alistair McQueen

And yourself? I've never actually known this - how did you end up becoming so interested in the subject of ageing? 

Anna Dixon 

Well, my background is actually in health and social care. I've always worked in jobs somewhere between... researchers, so I did spend a bit of time in University, policy... I confess I did spend a bit of time in central government working in the Department of Health as it was, but also trying to sort of work on practice. So, supporting the NHS and frontline clinicians to improve the services for patients.  
So I guess that's my main background, and through that I recognised that so much of the things that make a difference to both how long we live, but also how healthy those extra years are, actually sits outside the NHS and it's much more to do with things like housing and employment. So that's really what brought me to ageing. A recognition that if we're going to have longer, healthier lives, we need to do something about all these other aspects of society, so.... 

Alistair McQueen

Brilliant, and you brought a lot of your thinking together recently in a new book that you have just published ‘The Age of Ageing Better? A Manifesto for the Future’. I've got one confession and two questions for you about the book. My confession is... that this was my holiday reading. I did manage to escape the UK, and I made it to Greece this summer, and this is what I read, honestly, beside the swimming pool. So thank you for that.  

Question one is: Why have you written this book? 

Anna Dixon

Well, obviously through my job I, over the last five years, have been privileged to get to see lots of that evidence and data about what needs to change if more of us are going to have a good later life. And I suppose I realised that there's no point me keeping this treasure trove of insights to myself, you know? 

I can have a small impact through talking to my work colleagues, and friends and family, but if we were really going to make a big difference, it needed me, through writing this book, to share it with a much, much wider readership and audience, to make sure that we do make the changes that are needed so that we can perhaps have this age of ageing better.  

You might notice that there's a question mark after the “Age of Ageing Better?” and that's in part because it's not a sure thing. It's very dependent on whether we wake up to the reality that the age is shifting. The population is happening, and it's happening now, and also that we do something about it. 

Alistair McQueen

And it is a one stop shop for everything that's in ageing. My second question is: how on Earth did you find the time to write it? Were you doing this at sort of two o'clock in the morning? Were you getting up at 6:00 in the morning?  

Anna Dixon 

A bit like you reading the book on the poolside! There were a few holidays where the laptop went with me and I sort of left the husband on the sun bed and went and did a bit of writing. But I mean I've had fantastic support from colleagues. You know, so much of the information in there is the cumulative effort of the team at Ageing Better over the last five years. And I had the particular help of an amazing research assistant, Amy. 

Alistair McQueen

Well thank you to you, and thank you to Amy. Well let's get into the debate then, and I'm going to take inspiration from your book. You state in the book that when it comes to ageing we must tackle the doom-mongers head on. You’re very much trying to give a cup half-full perception of ageing... Well, let me just put a challenge to you.  

Just in September of this year it was reported that life expectancy in the UK is at a record high. 79 for a man or 83 for a woman. Now, if I was a doom-monger, I would say this is a recipe for disaster. Spiralling healthcare. Spiralling social care costs. Who's going to pay the pensions... if I'm a doom-monger, challenge me, tackle me, tell me I'm wrong about this ageing society. 

Anna Dixon

Well, you know you'd be in good company. There's quite a lot of economists, people working in Treasury, and in the independent office for budgetary responsibility that sort of advises the Treasury, and they definitely look at the fact that there has been a huge shift, and that this will continue over the next 20 years with more and more of us living into old age. And just to give you and listeners a sort of sense of scale on that, if we go back 20 years, to 2000, there were nine million of us 65 and over in the UK. Today, 12 million 65 and over. if we fast forward 20 years, that's going to go up to 18 million.  

So these are big numbers. They're changing pretty fast, and so when you plug those numbers into your economic model, if you're sitting at the Treasury, it is quite scary. There likely pension bill and the costs in terms of health and social care.

But you know, what I would say is you’re absolutely failing to see that lots of people in later life are contributing, both directly by working for longer, by huge spending power, by contributing voluntarily to communities. By caring - whether that's for grandchildren or for their own loved ones. 

If we overlook that huge economic contribution, we're missing something. And the other is this sort of assumption that, you know, what's going to be happening in the future is the same as in the past, particularly in terms of Health and social care. Almost assuming that a 70 year old in the future is going to cost as much and use as much health and social care as a 70 year old today. Well we've seen that that's not true. That actually many people are living longer, but they're also living longer in good health. Unfortunately not as long as we would like, but there are things we can do, and so I suppose the challenge back to the doom-mongers is if we put a different pair of glasses on and looked at this, we might see some new solutions. And if we actually implemented some of those new solutions, we might be able to turn what looks like a problem into an opportunity. 

Alistair McQueen

Somebody said to me recently there are various “isms” that challenge society. Ageism is one that impacts all of us, so surely you're speaking to a population of people that want to age better.  

There's nobody's interests for us not to age better. So hopefully you've got a big team of supporters behind you.  

Anna Dixon 

Yeah, definitely, exactly.  

Alistair McQueen

And your manifesto, as you call it... you have four legs to your manifesto. I'm simplifying here, but you’ve got health, housing, communities and work. I want to focus on work. Aviva is a big employer. We service many millions of people who are employees, and your challenge is to have what you call “fulfilling work” for those aged 50 and over. I wanted to say, if you're asking, if you're to give the UK a score out of 10 in its ability today to give people over the age of 50 fulfilling work, how do you think we’re doing as a country at the moment? 

Anna Dixon

I think it's a pretty mixed picture across all ages. You know, fulfilling work, and then there are different definitions of what sort of quality work is. But you know decent pay, security, fair opportunities for on the job training and promotion. Unfortunately, a lot of older workers, along with quite a lot of younger workers, are not experiencing that. And we do see, and have seen, a really big growth in insecure work at those older ages, as well as younger ages, and unfortunately this recent impact on the economy of people being furloughed and made redundant... Similarly, it's having a disproportionate effect not only on younger workers that we hear a lot about, but also on older workers. We're not doing brilliantly on that yet, and we also know that there are quite a lot of people who are over 50 who would like to be continuing to work, and for different reasons, particularly health conditions, and finding it difficult to manage those health conditions at work, or juggling caring responsibilities with work, fall out of employment and then they find it very hard to get back. 

Alistair McQueen

No, exactly, and you touched there on the economic situation in which we find ourselves today. Nobody can discuss anything on this scale without referring to the pandemic, and coronavirus has quite often been looked at through the lens of age.  

The elderly it’s said are more at risk, the young maybe are more at the sharp end of economic challenge. Has this challenging situation that we find ourselves in, has it made it harder for you to make a positive case about ageing, given the world in which we live today? 

Anna Dixon 

I certainly think we've seen some examples of the sort of ageist stereotypes and ageist ideas that were already fairly prevalent. But the idea that everybody over 70 is vulnerable or dependent... Some of the early action reinforced that.  

I do think that in many ways, though, it's just shone a spotlight really on some of the issues that I highlight in the book. So take housing, for example. You know a disproportionate number of the homes that fail even the government's own standards of what's called decent... So these are homes that create hazards for people's health and wellbeing, are much more likely to be lived in by somebody older, and of course they are the very people who are having to spend even more time in those homes and therefore having a further damaging effect on people's health. So, I think in many ways the urgency to tackle some of these issues is only heightened by the recent coronavirus. 

Alistair McQueen

Well, on the subject of ageing. I'm going to play the part here now of the ‘case for the prosecution’, that a longer working life is a bad thing, and I want you to push me back and challenge me back. 

I've identified four things that I quite often hear, that maybe the doom-mongers would say when we talk about a fuller working life or a longer working life in this debate, and the first one is: “OK, Anna, you're basically saying we should all work until we drop.” Is that what you're arguing here? We all work until we drop? 

Anna Dixon

Not at all. Many of us choose to work longer, and for good reason. Lots of us actually get a lot from our jobs. They keep us mentally and physically active. We meet people and enjoy the social contact. I think we're all missing that a bit, stuck at home. And it gives us, you know, a reason to get up in the morning. What we might call meaning and purpose to our lives. So, you know, this is not something that the government, or even I am arguing that people should do against their will. But as I mentioned, lots of people who want to work can't work, and so this is much more about supporting people to have longer working lives. Because we're having longer lives, we actually need to work for longer for financial reasons too, and it's about making that sustainable so we're not working till we drop, but rather that we've had a good work-life balance across the whole of our life and that we've been supported to think about careers, to retrain, and to find ourselves in work that we can continue to do - hopefully into our 70s. 

Alistair McQueen

So you're not mandating we all work until we’re 90. But if somebody does want to, you want to create an environment that facilitates working. 

Anna Dixon 

Exactly. Have I convinced you, Alistair? 

Alistair McQueen

Yeah, well, that's only one of my four! My second of my four is: OK, this is great, but surely the ‘older worker’, in inverted commas, is simply desk blocking a younger worker. Surely the older worker has a responsibility to move on to make way for the younger workers. That's what I'm saying in my case for the prosecution. 

Anna Dixon

I'm afraid it's a complete myth, Alistair.  

Alistair McQueen

Really? 

Anna Dixon 

No evidence anywhere internationally that older workers are taking jobs from the young. In fact, when we see an economic upturn and jobs growth, we see that that benefits all ages. So the more older workers, the more younger workers you have in work. And, as I just said, when you get a downturn like we've just had, I'm afraid it impacts on both older and younger workers.  

And I suppose the other thing, of course, is just the sheer numbers. You know, we had a baby boom during the 1960s, and so there are just a lot more people now entering retirement than there are young people entering the workforce at the other end. And so we have a gap. So, we actually need to keep some of those older workers in work just to sort of keep the status quo in terms of keeping the same number of workers available. 

Alistair McQueen

OK, good, you’re doing well! You're halfway through my four challenges. The third challenge is: OK. We need to keep these people in work. These people, inverted commas, ‘older workers’, but surely they're going to be less productive. We're all going to get tired as we age, so this is going to be bad for the economy, keeping people in work beyond normal age of retirement. 

Anna Dixon

Well, there's actually some really positive studies that are showing that working in age-diverse teams actually leads to better productivity. So, studies are showing that the age-diverse teams perform better than those that perhaps only have younger workers. And I think you'll know this, more diverse, whether that's by gender or race or other aspects of diversity, you've got more ideas, diverse perspectives, and if you can harness those, and that's the critical thing, do we have age positive cultures in our workplaces? If you can harness that, you're actually going to get better results than if you only have a very... let's say ‘uniform’ workforce. 

Alistair McQueen

Certainly in Aviva we have, I think I may have said, 17,000 people in the UK. We recently found out our youngest is 17, our oldest employee’s 77, and so we're trying to celebrate the age diversity in the organisation. What can a 17-year-old learn from a 77-year-old, and vice versa? 60 years of difference in in life experience in the organization, to try and celebrate that. 

Anna Dixon 

That's fantastic and it would be great to see more employers following your lead. 

Alistair McQueen

And then my final challenge then is: well, it's maybe OK for you and I - I'm sitting at my kitchen table, you're sitting in the top floor of your house - to talk about fuller working lives. But some people work in maybe much more manual labour, heavy industry... What’s your message to that part of the population? Are you also expecting that part of the population to keep working? 

Anna Dixon

So I think we do need to recognise that if you've been in heavy manual work for much of your working life, that sustaining that longer will be more challenging. But I don't think the answer to that is to say, ‘OK, you don't need to work’.  

I think there's a couple of things we need to do. We need to challenge whether that heavy manual work should be having such a damaging effect on people's health in the first place. And there's lots that's already changed in terms of Health and Safety, which has done a lot to reduce the negative impact of that sort of work. And hopefully with technology coming along, you might see even more of that. I mean, there are rather futuristic things like exoskeleton suits that if people put on could help them do those sorts of manual jobs, perhaps with less negative impact on their health.  

But I think the second is that we need to help people to retrain, so, let's not wait until they're in a situation where they've been doing, let's say, scaffolding or construction their whole lives and they get to 55, they’re injured, they’re unable to continue that, and the only thing that really faces them is to take some low skill job or to find themselves on a benefit. Perhaps a health related benefit, and out of work. We should be, much before they get to that point, intervening to help them think about what are the alternative career options here? How could I get some training that's going to give me what I need to work for another 15 or 20 years? 

Alistair McQueen

Well, I think you've passed the four tests. And you have talked there about employment practices. And Aviva, we've got thousands of employers who work with Aviva, and they'll be listening to this podcast too – helpfully, in your book, you've listed the top five actions that a good employer should be taking, and I'm not going to challenge you to remember them…. I'm going to list them here.  

One is support flexible working, one is hire from all ages, third is, as you've just said, ensure all ages have health support that they need. The fourth is create a positive age culture, and then the fifth one is encouraging career development at all ages. So those are five actions that good employers should be taking. 

I just want to focus on that last one, encouraging career development to all ages. In your book you say the UK has the third worst rate of job-related training in the OECD - that's developed economies - for over 50s. The third worst job related training. Can you explain why, we're so proud of the economy of the United Kingdom, why are we the third worst at training over 50s? 

Anna Dixon 

Well, it's a really good question, and I'm not sure we know the answer. But we see the consequence of it. Which is, you know, we do under invest in what we might otherwise call lifelong learning. You know, opportunities for people to retrain and keep their skills updated so they can stay in the workplace. And you know, I think with Covid, the impact on the economy, we’re just seeing how necessary that is going to be.  

I think there's a bit of an outdated view in terms of, you know, most of our emphasis is on people leaving home to go to University. That sort of aspiration of higher or further education as a young person, and then you go off to the world of work and there is not the same value placed on what I would call that sort of technical or on the job training. 

Even things like apprenticeships are generally seen as something that young people do at the start of their career, whereas actually they should be equally available to somebody who wants to start again in their 50s.  

And so I think we've just got to really take a different look and a different approach, and I think that's from everything from the Department for Education, where the government puts the emphasis, but also employers and really valuing that sort of on the job know-how. 

Alistair McQueen

Well, in Aviva, we've talked about supporting a fuller working life, being an age friendly employer. But then somebody rightly says, “Well, put your money where your mouth is”. And first of all, we asked our own people about ‘what does it feel like, working for Aviva at all ages’ and two concerning insights we gained…  One was there was an unwritten rule that career development came to an end once you get to the age of 50, and that was a culture that certainly wasn't written down anywhere but had created itself, and the second one was anecdotal feedback we were given that when someone in their 50s was maybe having their end of year review with their manager, the manager's opening line would be, “Well, this won’t take long, will it?” Sending the message, wrongly sending the message, that your career’s behind you.  

So, one of the things... I wanted to share this with you, and see is this the kind of thing that you're maybe thinking employers should be doing? In Aviva, to try and challenge this culture, we've introduced what we call a “mid-life MOT”. That's taking people, we take them over the age of 45, and give them the option of being given guidance on how to manage their money, their career and their health and wellbeing. It’s an optional intervention. We've had really good impact with our own people. They’ve felt the benefit from it. We as a business have felt the benefit from it. And so we're now going to launch that as an app to the public so that anyone over the age of 45 can get some hints and tips about how to manage their wealth, their work, and their wellbeing.

Now, I'm not asking you to endorse this, but is that the type of thing that you'd be encouraging private employers to be thinking about? 

Anna Dixon

Absolutely. So you talked there about the sort of five actions that an age friendly employer can take, and we see having these sort of ongoing conversations, which do have an element of career conversation in them, but they also must recognise that this is broader than just a career conversation. It does need to bring in questions about people's health, as you are doing, and also financial planning. These are so interlinked. And we did some work early on with a few innovators, including yourselves, looking at the potential of a mid-life MOT and it's been great to see how they have developed and evolved.  

We also did some pre-retirement courses and evaluated those, and what we found there was how much people value just having the opportunity to take a little bit of time out, to take a step back and to evaluate, as you say, their future, what their plans are and to think about it in this sort of holistic way. To think not just about the usual sort of pension and practical things about the next stage of life, but also to include things around this sort of psychological, emotional, that sort of wellbeing... So it's great to see this sort of wealth work and wellbeing at the heart of your midlife MOT at Aviva. 

Alistair McQueen

Initially, being a financial company, we thought we will work with our people to help them manage their finances, but then very quickly we were told “wait a minute, my life is way much more than just my money. It’s my career development and it’s my health and wellbeing.” So we've tried to bring those three legs together in one app, and we'll certainly continue to learn and share with yourselves at the Centre for Ageing Better what we learn from that experience.  

I think just coming to a conclusion from our tour of ageing and society, I've got two final questions for you. One is... we're very good, you and I, maybe at telling what others should be doing to help them age better, but can I ask you what actions are you personally taking to ensure you age better? 

Anna Dixon 

Well gosh, you put me on the spot now. Well, I like to think I'm doing pretty well on the keeping fit.  I'm a regular swimmer, but I also do yoga and it's really important that we mix the aerobic exercise with exercises that promote strength and balance. We found that from our work. So I practice what we preach in that regard.  

I also sort of know the benefits of being involved in the community, and so I'm quite active in my local church and really invest in friendships and relationships with my nieces and nephews. Actually, I don't have children, and so I've also understood that it's going to be really important to me later on to have relationships with my nieces and nephews so that there's somebody around to support me and advocate for me when I get to that life stage.  

I suppose I do quite well on my pension savings, but I could probably do more, and I haven't quite got to the stage yet where I'm converting my home, that is a rather tall, thin terrace house with no loo on the ground floor. And actually it was really clear to me when my mother-in-law was quite ill towards the end of her life, we got to a point where she couldn't visit us any longer because she couldn't get up the steep flight of stairs. So there is something about thinking about our homes and probably I'm not quite as prepared as I need to be yet. 

Alistair McQueen

But I guess for all of us this is not a case of set and forget. We're continually working at making age better so... 

Anna Dixon

Work in progress. 

Alistair McQueen

Work in progress. 

And yeah, the final one is: you mentioned some statistics about the number of people living into later life. One of my favourite little statistics, I might have the years wrong, but about 100 years ago, King George the fifth started sending telegrams to people reaching their 100th birthday. I think it was 1917 he began the tradition, and he sent 24 telegrams to people celebrating their 100th birthday, and now the latest statistics tell us that this year, incredibly, there'd be more than 13,000 people in the United Kingdom living to 100 and beyond. So huge transformation.  

I guess a question for you, and I don't think there's a right or a wrong answer to this, but the question is, do you want to live until you're 100? 

Anna Dixon 

Well, I guess yes, why not I think is my short answer! Because I wrote in the book that there are various online calculators that you can put your details in and it gives you an idea of what your likelihood is of living to 100 and what your life expectancy might be. And anyway, 93 popped out as my life expectancy, so I'm already preparing that I'll definitely probably make it to 90. So another 10 years doesn't seem too bad.  

I think the key’s got to be ‘can I still enjoy my life’ you know, and live a quality of life that I'm OK with. I don't know at this point what that would look like. But you know, still be able to enjoy the things I enjoy now. 

Alistair McQueen

You've got various quotes in your book and the first one I think you've got in here is “It’s more about how we live than about how long we live”. So, I think I'm hearing what you're saying. 

Anna, brilliant, thank you spending time with us. Thank you for everything you do at the Centre for Ageing Better. Thank you for the book, “The Age of Ageing Better? A Manifesto for our Future”. I have enjoyed reading it on holiday. I'm sure others will too! And we will keep in touch and will be speaking sometime again soon. Thank you very much. 

Anna Dixon

Thanks Alistair, I’ve enjoyed the conversation and thanks for having me on. 

 

In this podcast, Aviva's Alistair McQueen Head of UK Savings and Retirement and Dr Anna Dixon, CEO of the Centre for Ageing Better examine the challenges and opportunities associated with longer lives and shifting expectations of retirement.

They also discuss Aviva's Mid-Life MOT app and other external resources available to help encourage mid-lifers keep track of  their work, wealth and wellbeing and achieve a better balance.

Download Aviva's Mid Life MOT app

Show notes

You can find out more about the Centre for Ageing Better and Aviva long running Mid Life MOT campaign by clicking on the links below: