Average life expectancy at birth fell by 7.8 weeks in England and 11 weeks in Scotland between 2018 and 2020, according to new data from the Office for National Statistics. As a result, there have been calls for the Government to rethink their plans to up the state pension age from 66 to 67, which is set to happen in 2028.
Life expectancy fell across most regions of England, but not equally, as large drops in male life expectancy at birth were seen in the North East (16.7 weeks) and Yorkshire and The Humber (8.8 weeks).
For females, life expectancy was down in the West Midlands (9.9 weeks) but up significantly in the South West (17.7 weeks).
The life expectancy gap is even more stark when you compare specific locations. Male life expectancy fell by 1.9 years in Hertsmere but rose by 2.1 years in Westminster. Elsewhere, female life expectancy dropped 1.1 years in Derby but surged 1.7 years in Kensington and Chelsea.
The Covid pandemic unsurprisingly has been viewed as the primary cause, resulting in “significant reductions” in life expectancy compared with the period 2015-2017.
“What’s more, the vast differences in life expectancy in different parts of the UK will likely reignite the debate around the flexibility of the state pension system.”
Mr Selby explained that the current rules regarding state pension withdrawal are perhaps not suited to everyone, and outlined the potential pros and cons of introducing a more flexible system.
He said: “The current framework means you cannot access the state pension until you hit state pension age, meaning those with lower average life expectancy can expect to receive less from the state in retirement on average.
“One idea often floated is to allow people to access their state pension early but at a reduced rate. This could help certain groups who might expect to live less long, although care would need to be taken not to heap more complexity onto what is already a complicated system.
“Given the catastrophic impact Covid has had on all of our lives – and in particular to life expectancy – it makes sense to begin this debate now. State pension age changes have been planned for a long time and were designed to reflect longer-term improvements in life expectancy.
“Rowing back on the hike would undoubtedly be popular but would also cost the Treasury billions of pounds at a time when public finances are already stretched to breaking point.”
Becky O’Connor, Head of Pensions & Savings, interactive investor, also had her say on the findings. She said: “These are the first life expectancy figures from the ONS that include some impact from the pandemic in 2020.
“The result is that there has been no improvement in life expectancy for women and for men, a decline to levels last seen in the period 2012 to 2014. The ONS said this is the first decline since the series began in the early 1980s.”
Ms O’Connor pointed out that the way the Government sets out their pension policy is based around an expectation of a perpetual rise in life expectancy in the UK, but this may now need to be reconsidered based on the latest developments.
She said: “Much pensions policy is based on the assumption that longevity will continue to rise, including normal minimum pension age rises and state pension entitlement age.
“The ongoing increases to the ages at which people can access their pensions needs a serious rethink in light of this decline in longevity. If life spans continue to stay the same or decline further, there can be no justification for continuing to increase pension entitlement ages.
“Otherwise, we have to look seriously at whether we are effectively kissing goodbye to retirement as a concept in the UK. A man retiring at 67 who dies at 79 would have only 12 years after a life of hard work for retirement. This compares poorly with the 20+ years of retirement enjoyed by previous generations.”
However, Helen Morrisey, senior pensions and retirement analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown expects that a fall in life expectancy for Britons will merely be temporary, as the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to reveal themselves.
She said: “Today’s data shows the first fall in life expectancy with men’s life expectancy at birth falling by seven weeks between 2015-17 and 2018-2020. However, this fall is likely to be largely attributable to the pandemic and we could see a return to slow increases in life expectancy in the coming years.”