John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: Put our pensions to better use, Jacinda

Newly elected Labour deputy-leader Jacinda Ardern and leader Andrew Little after their caucus vote at Parliament in Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Newly elected Labour deputy-leader Jacinda Ardern and leader Andrew Little after their caucus vote at Parliament in Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Congratulations Jacinda. Deputy leader at 36, a year younger than my son, a year older than my daughter. Now that your career has taken off you could be the first prime minister of their generation.

You will have been astonished by the audacity of Bill English this week, though not surprised by the suggestion you should not get the old age pension until you are 67. You've probably always assumed the qualifying age would be at least 70 by the time you get there. The way my generation is working away past 65 now and our parents are living well into their 80s, a qualifying age of 70 seems about right, don't you think?

Not that any of you give much thought to superannuation at your age, that is why English is on fairly safe electoral ground when he proposed to start raising the age in 2037.

He is looking after my generation, who started reaching the pension age five years ago.

English is a late baby boomer like John Key, they seem to think we early boomers (1946-56) think much like our parents, the grey power generation born in the Depression, blooded in war and heavily taxed for the social security they chose.

We are not like them. We are the generation that would never grow old. We are still listening to the music we loved in our teens, still going to concerts to hear the same bands, grizzled old guitarists they are now. We are still wearing blue jeans, blissfully unaware that with our paunches we shouldn't.

We're hitting 65 feeling fine. Most of us are perfectly capable of continuing to earn a living and nearly half of us are doing exactly that. The Retirement Commissioner reports 43 per cent of those aged 65-69 are still in the workforce. We don't need the pension.

And, incidentally, it is a pension, it never was "superannuation" which is a return of an invested fund built by savings over a lifetime. Young Roger Douglas set up a public fund like that for our generation when he was a junior minister in the Rowling Government but Muldoon cancelled it. You've read about this.

And you've heard endlessly about how the baby boomers came to power when you were 4 years old and blew away the costly, comfortable, dead-end protections of our parents' economy and made the country what it is today. We're the reason you had to pay student loans and you found it harder to find holiday jobs. There used to be plenty of jobs in university holidays but it was not always easy to work out what you were supposed to be doing. I once spent a summer weeding the perimeter fence of an electricity substation.

It was a funny old economy. Believe me, you wouldn't have liked it. Don't believe what you've been told by teachers about its equality. There were rich people back then. They had import licences. The rest of us had rusty cars.

We made New Zealand an open market sustaining a world-class living standard but we didn't get everything done. We didn't do capital gains tax until it was too late to soften the house prices your generation faces, and the age benefit was the only cash hand-out that we failed to test for need.

During the furore over the surtax when you were a child we forgot that before Muldoon the pension was partially means-tested. You got it if you needed it from age 60 and it became "universal" at 65. The Labour Party has always had a soft spot for universal benefits but you could remind them that Michael Joseph Savage's Government designed the system I'm talking about. It could be worth reviving as a basis for raising the age of universal entitlement. If the pension was not paid to people under 70 unless they had no other income, we could probably afford to make it available from age 60 on that basis, which would be a relief for workers in hard physical jobs. It would be an option for anybody weary of routine paid work but unable to afford to retire. Many women would thank you, and Maori, according to the Maori Party.

A policy along those lines would be a more daring response to National's move this week than your leader's lame promise to keep the age at 65. I know you are also promising to revive contributions to the Cullen fund, as you should if you have a Budget surplus, but it was never going to be able to pay more than a fraction of the baby boom's pensions.

Your generation will be in power within 10 years, when even more of the under-70s won't need the money you will be giving them. Put it to better use.

- NZ Herald

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John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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