Work for life, work for death!
This article was initially published in French. Click here to read the original version.
What does "reforming pensions" mean in the 21st century? What does it mean to adapt society for "our elders"? Taking an interest in pensions and the elderly cannot prevent us from observing work and its changes. Because the question of the social utility of retirees’ questions that of workers. Because isolation in retirement begins at work. Because inequalities in wealth between retirees are first and foremost between workers.
In search of social utility - in the time of retirement as in the workplace
In our work-based society, older people are most often seen as a burden. Mélissa Petit, a sociologist specialising in the silver economy, points out that 31% of the over-65s are volunteers in associations (France bénévolat 2019 figures). Far from being a coincidence, volunteering allows retirees who have worked all their lives to regain a social identity as active players in society - and no longer as inactive, consumers, or even those who receive assistance. It is a form of response to the existential question of one's social usefulness when one no longer works.
But behind this question of the social usefulness of the inactive, it is the question of the active that is at stake - in a world where social recognition is circumscribed to work, and even more so to pay. The less you earn, the less you are considered. Laëtitia Vitaud, author and lecturer specialising in this field of work, says, "I was a teacher for ten years, without much social recognition. Now I'm doing the same thing as an entrepreneur and writer." Not only does she earn more, but her work is more highly regarded.
When you don't 'work', the situation is even worse, with impoverishment adding to the lack of consideration. The best example is certainly domestic work, the invisible work often done by women. This work is so valuable that it is priceless. But in the absence of monetary remuneration, it is clear that it is highly precarious. In this sense, Laëtitia Vitaud pleads for invisible work to be made not only visible but also paid for.
Work, from labour to work
It is therefore the way we look at non-productive people (in the economic sense of the term), and therefore the value associated with work, that is being questioned. The word "work" comes from the Latin tripalium, a torture instrument made up of three (three) stakes (pālūs) that was used by the Romans to immobilise rebellious slaves. In the Bible, labour is the divine punishment for the original sin. For men, it is the sweat of the brow to work the land. For women, it is the labour of the womb to give birth. While Latin languages retain this conception of work as toil, in English it is preferred to 'work', in reference to the work one has done. It is no longer a question of effort and suffering but of accomplishment, of work.
When a shirt is ironed at the dry cleaners or by a cleaning lady, it generates GDP points. When it is ironed by a devoted wife, that is not the same case.
What remains of these conceptual differences around work today? Well aware of the complexity of this notion, economists prefer to focus on employment – which is more easily quantified and qualified. But it is precisely this narrow conception of work, reduced to economic production, that makes many facets of work invisible. When a shirt is ironed at the dry cleaners or by a cleaning lady, it generates GDP points. When it is ironed by a devoted wife, it does not. The work of daily life and of the home represents millions of jobs for tomorrow, but today it is not counted.
Isolation of the retiree versus solitude of the worker
In addition to everyday work, it is the support and care professions - nurses, care assistants, etc. - that are among the least valued, and which are often the only ones to be taken on. - These professions, which serve the needs of others, are often the least valued, both financially and socially. These professions, which serve others, the sick and the elderly, are practised by the most modest, and very often by women. Yet they meet major societal needs.
On the flip side: elderly people who may be isolated, who no longer see or speak to anyone, or even suffer from a "crisis of touch". As Laëtitia Vitaud reminds us, "When touching and looking are no longer purely medical, there is inevitably suffering, an attack on our dignity. In these conditions, going to the hairdresser's is the highlight of the week." This is what Delphine de Vigan describes so well in her novel Les Gratitudes.
On the other side: society as a whole, which is showing more and more signs of anxiety, depression and burn-out. Loneliness does not only manifest itself in the "third age" but throughout life. Because in reality, we all need attention: we touch and look at a child, we hold its hand, we kiss it, we caress it.
A world that monetised every sign of empathy and love would be totally dystopian
Laëtitia Vitaud therefore advocates revaluing these support and care professions, which our individualistic and ageing societies are sorely lacking. However, a world that monetised every sign of empathy and love would be totally dystopian: "I give you my hand, it's 5 euros". Although it is necessary to enhance the value of these professions, the market is not the answer.
One way forward would be to give more value and encouragement to mutual aid and voluntary work, and not only at retirement. But today, in France, we do the opposite. We don't help to help, unlike in Quebec, for example, where volunteering is particularly easy, especially in retirement homes and palliative care. To encourage mutual aid, we could introduce a basic remuneration system to provide financial security for people wishing to volunteer. Above all, non-financial ways of recognising our social usefulness should be generalised, based on donation and counter-donation models for example.
Finally, solidarity mechanisms should be dissociated from work. Since the establishment of Social Security after the war, all social protection (accident, old age or illness) has been conditional on having worked. Mélissa Petit calls for the construction of family or even tribal solidarity logics, which would ultimately be stronger and more resilient than those attached to work. As Laëtitia Vitaud adds: "The first social safety net is the density and solidity of the network and relationships that we have around us."
In retirement, wealth inequalities are squared
Linking social protection to work also means prolonging - and amplifying - wealth inequalities at retirement age. Indeed, wage differentials coupled with working time differentials between a worker and a senior executive are increased tenfold at the time of retirement. Laëtitia Vitaud emphasised that while senior executives work 40 hours or more per week, more and more people (especially workers and women) work part-time and have interrupted careers.
We are living in a less redistributive society, with a new consensus on lower taxation.
These inequalities of wealth inexorably mask the dynamics of social reproduction. If you are born a worker, you have very little chance of becoming an executive. In the same way, when you inherit or when you know you are going to inherit, your relationship to work is not the same. One knows that one can take more risks, that the flat inherited from one's parents constitutes a significant safety cushion.
To break these determinisms, Laëtitia Vitaud advocates more redistribution. As she recalls, 50 years ago, having tax rates of more than 50% was not shocking. In the United States, there was even a 90% tax rate for the richest brackets. Over time, taxes have become increasingly regressive in Western countries. His analysis is clear: "Resources have been drained and people are led to believe that there is no more money for public services... We are living in a less redistributive society, with a new consensus on lower taxation.
Old age laws and silver economy start-ups: two solutionist mirages
The issues associated with retirement are much broader and more complex than the regime that governs it. They touch on the meaning and social value of work, the need for mutual aid and the ethics of care, inequalities and their reproduction mechanisms... Above all, they do not only concern the "third age" but all ages. However, as Mélissa Petit points out, public policies do the opposite. From the "old age" laws to the laws on "loss of autonomy", we do not manage to consider our life paths as a whole. We are focusing on curative rather than preventive measures. Nor are the responses provided by the silver economy satisfactory. The start-ups investing in this niche - relatively few in number compared to the weight of the elderly in the population - suffer from at least two biases.
A technological bias. To raise funds today, you need either artificial intelligence or robotics. However, technology is not an end in itself and the need expressed by the elderly is to be touched, looked at, accompanied, helped... by a human being and not by a machine! Where digital technology has advantages - in accessing information and sharing knowledge, in coordinating people and actions - it is little funded and exploited.
A solution bias. The needs, expectations and life situations of "seniors" are homogenised and simplified to satisfy the development of unique and relatively predictable solutions: often applications, algorithms or on-demand workers. These solutions are, by construction, short-termist. They deny the complexity of needs and do not question their mechanisms of production and reproduction. They fail to grasp the social, relational and demographic transformations at work. Laëtitia Vitaud cites the example of those futurists who, in the 1960s, imagined the office of the future with a fax machine and the equivalent of a smartphone... But no female managers! In this office of the future, women are only secretaries. Futurologists had not anticipated the arrival of women in the world of work.
Learning to grow old means learning to live
So, what answers can we give to these profound changes? We all have representations of older people, inherited or transmitted by the media, companies, start-ups, etc. These perceptions structure the way we live in society. Today, for example, we worship youth, even though society is ageing! Currently, there are already more people over 60 than under 20 (27% vs. 24%; INSEE 2020 figures). In 2030, the over-60s will represent almost 30% of the total population (insee projections). In Japan, it is already 35%! At this rate, youthism will quickly become untenable. And this will not be without repercussions for the world of work.
If we live longer, career paths can no longer be as linear and uniform as before. For Mélissa Petit, "You can't work for 50 years in the same way. Our desires, skills and abilities change as we age". With these demographic changes, the classic three-stage life pattern (training / work / retirement) is about to break down. Breaks, reconversions and the combination of different activities are set to become increasingly frequent. Laëtitia Vitaud notes that "one can no longer be considered as 'senior' in a company at the age of 45, which is the median age! Age and experience will be uncorrelated: a 30-year-old senior with 8 years of experience will be able to "coach" a 50-year-old junior who will be in his second career with only a few months of experience"... a bit like in the film The Intern, where Robert de Niro has a boss 40 years younger than him. But these transformations will certainly be slow because of the system's strong inertia. For example, today, the employment rate of 50–64-year-olds is only 62.6% (INSEE figures for 2019). At a time when we are considering raising the retirement age to 64, these changes in work and its representations are all the more urgent and critical.
We have to learn to get older a little better everyday.
A first step towards changing the way we look at our elders could be, as Mélissa Petit proposes, to introduce practical civic education to bring together elderly people, children and associations. The sociologist invites us to de-compartmentalise the ages and to consider ageing as a life experience: "Every day, at every moment, everyone ages and learns. We therefore need to demystify ageing in order to learn how to age a little better every day.”
This means a different way of looking at the elderly. Not as inactive and passive beings, but as active players with their own will. "Yes, you can start doing sport at 65 and gain muscle mass! Growing old is not necessarily synonymous with decline. It is an adaptation. It's a way of looking at age and the passing of time. Growing old is just living.
This article was written following the conference "Overcoming the pension reform: working for life, working for death?" (Dépasser la réforme des retraites : travailler à la vie, travailler à la mort ?”) organised by the MAIF Start-Up Club with Ouishare on 24 January 2020.
Speakers included Laëtitia Vitaud (author and lecturer) and Mélissa Petit (sociologist). Moderated by Taoufik Vallipuram (Ouishare).
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