The “mustn’t grumble” British pensioner has been consigned to history

Today’s older generation is refusing to accept traditional self-denying attitudes, says Abigail Davis.

In our regular research about what incomes people need for a minimum acceptable standard of living, we draw wisdom from people with direct experience of each living situation that we describe. Groups of parents are consulted on what things are essential for families with children, pensioners on what is necessary for an acceptable life post retirement, and so on.

When we started this research, there were concerns that the concept of a ’minimum’ would reflect differences in attitudes rather than genuine differences in needs. Older generations brought up with rationing would say you can get by on very little; materialistic working-age adults would ask for more, while parents might say that their offspring should be able to have all the latest technology and designer brands in order to fit in.

We need not have worried. In practice our groups have proved to be remarkably consistent. They are unanimous in insisting that an acceptable life, at any age, needs to involve social interaction and not just survival. They are able to make clear distinctions between ’nice to have’ items and ’need to have’ ones, and these lines have been drawn in very similar ways over time by different groups of people.

Nevertheless, in 2008, budgets for pensioners came out around 10 to 20 per cent below their working-age equivalents. Pensioners did insist that you need to go out, go on holiday and be able to make yourself and your home presentable to have an acceptable living standard. However, they specified, for example, a slightly smaller clothing budget and less money for eating out.

In 2014, one of the most striking findings is that this difference has disappeared. For a single person, the size of the minimum ’baskets’ of goods and services are now identical either side of pension age. This does not mean that the contents are exactly the same – pensioners require more for certain health-related items, for example, and still specify less for clothes, although the gap has narrowed.

What is really noticeable is how important pensioners feel it is to keep up with changes in society, and to participate in it fully. This is why in 2014 they have agreed – for the first time – that being able to access the internet at home is essential, rather than saying that it was a 'nice to have' option.

They are also particularly keen to emphasise social interaction outside the home. While working-age people have accepted that tougher times may mean eating out less frequently, pensioners have not. This may be because they fear that they have more to lose from reducing social interactions. People who do not meet others regularly through work may feel at greater risk of isolation and loneliness.

So life as a pensioner has not become identical to other stages of life, but any idea that it is characterised by self-denying attitudes is clearly out of date. Today, a pensioner with only the bare means for survival would most certainly grumble, and rightly so.