Tuesday 2 October 2012

The only way to retire in comfort is going to be winning the lottery

The greatest obstacle to every well-intentioned Government health campaign, like Stoptober, has always been the Uncle Fred factor.

However convincingly they may present statistics on the terrible consequences of smoking and drinking, nearly everyone can cite in response the example of an Uncle Fred who defied the odds.

Toping and puffing to wild excess from the age of 14, Uncle Fred only died aged 98 when he was knocked off his bike while fleeing from his girlfriend’s house after her husband came home unexpectedly early.

How the nation’s medical profession must have groaned last week when Dorothy Peel from Hull, interviewed as she celebrated her 110th birthday, revealed that one of the secrets of her longevity was giving up smoking … at the age of 104. While the other was never drinking whisky before 7pm, sticking to sherry earlier in the day.

Cheers, Dorothy! [Picture courtesy of The Sun]

The problem with this sort of story, amusing and spirit-raising though it undoubtedly is, is that it falls into the same category as those regular tales of massive lottery wins. It could be you. But it won’t be.

In practice, buying that ticket every week (and I write as a fellow mug who does it himself) just admits you to that not very select club of idiots who have cheerfully signed up to pay an extra voluntary tax. 

Continuing to smoke and drink heroically, in defiance of all official advice, involves a similar willingness to pay additional taxes. And, unlike having a flutter on the lottery, it will also shorten your life.

One of the main reasons cited for making cigarettes beyond the pale is the huge amounts that the NHS will “save” on the treatment of smoking-related illnesses. This will no doubt be true in the short run, but I wonder whether anyone has ever attempted a proper cost-benefit analysis in the longer term.

Because sadly few of us are destined to pass away peacefully aged 110 or more. The process of dying is more likely to be unpleasant, prolonged and, for the NHS or its privatised successors, expensive.

If we cut out the fags, the effect may be just to defer that cost for, say, 20 years, adding in the meantime to the drain on the nation’s pension funds. The parlous state of which needs no underlining.

The Government’s latest wheeze to deal with that particular crisis kicked off yesterday with the beginning of auto-enrolment in pension schemes. This involves having your pay docked now to build up a fund for your old age which, according to all the examples I have heard, will pay you a pathetically small additional pension and reduce your entitlement to benefits by a similar amount.

A worthwhile win for Government and society as a whole, no doubt, but hardly a great boon to the individual compulsory saver.

This will not make welcome reading for those towards the bottom of the economic heap, but I believe that the underlying reality is that we have simply had it too good for too long.

After Macmillan, no one dared to point out that "You've never had it so good." But he was right ...

The generation that won the equivalent of a double rollover jackpot in the lottery of life was the one just before mine. They were too young to be conscripted for World War II. Those who made it to university not only enjoyed their education entirely free of charge, but received a maintenance grant from the taxpayer. They worked through a period of generally increasing prosperity and benefited from a wholly disproportionate inflation in the value of their property assets.

Then, to cap it all, they retired on the sort of final salary pensions that are now completely unaffordable.

The reality for those of us bobbing along in their wake is that we are likely to go on getting worse off for some considerable time, whoever we vote for at the next election. For us, any sort of retirement, let alone a prosperous one, is probably just a dream.

Rather like emulating the spectacular luck of Uncle Fred or Mrs Peel in smoking and drinking without ill-effects, or picking the right six numbers in the lottery.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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