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The UK town where men would work until they die if the pension age hits 75

·Finance and policy reporter
People walk along the beach as the Blackpool Tower is reflected in a pool under the pier, in Blackpool, Britain, October 22, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
Blackpool has the lowest male life expectancy at birth in England. Photo: REUTERS/Hannah McKay

“It’s working to your deathbed. I don’t think it’s right,” said barman Kyle Sharples as he pulled a pint at the Washington pub in central Blackpool.

The 28-year-old told Yahoo Finance UK he had no desire to work into his early 70s, after former Conservative party leader Iain Duncan Smith made headlines by calling for the state pension age to rise to 75.

The average man in parts of the country could be forced to work until they die if the idea from the Centre for Social Justice think tank were ever implemented, turning retirement into an unlikely fantasy.

Life expectancy rates have generally risen over the past few decades, but increases have tailed off in recent years.

Some of Britain’s most deprived areas still have life expectancy rates so low that men cannot even expect to reach their 75th birthday, according to Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures.

Male life expectancy rates at birth in the UK in recent decades. Photo: ONS
Male life expectancy rates at birth in the UK in recent decades. Photo: ONS

‘It’s not fair to have people looking for work until 75’

Blackpool has the lowest male life expectancy in England, and the second lowest female life expectancy.

The average male resident is predicted at birth to die within a few months of turning 74, some five years earlier than the national average, the ONS figures show.

The average woman in Blackpool could also expect just four-and-a-half years of retirement if they worked until 75, compared to a national female average of eight years.

In the most deprived pockets of the famous seaside town in the north-west, life chances are even worse. Men in one neighbourhood are not even expected to reach 66 - two years shy of the current state pension age.

A man holds a cigarette and a pint of beer.
A man holds a cigarette and a pint of beer.

Heavy drinking, hard drug abuse, and suicide are taking a huge toll on the town. Research by the local authority says they help explain why so few residents would ever live long enough to pick up a state pension at 75.

Alcohol causes more male deaths in Blackpool than anywhere else in Britain, and the town has the second highest death rates linked to drink for women.

Crack cocaine and heroin or morphine are also major killers. A council public health report highlighted concerns among officials at a steep rise in substance abuse and self-harm among the young in recent years.

Kesh Peiris, a support worker at a local Salvation Army centre, has seen the challenges first hand. “Drug misuse, mental health problems, people not having enough work or going into crime - that affects people’s ability to keep a roof over their heads, and they become homeless. People struggle on their own.”

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She said many vulnerable people she worked with already struggled to find work, and would fare even worse if a pension age hike forced them to keep looking and signing on in their early 70s.

“Half can’t even get up or think what day it is, let alone look for work,” she said. “People get harassed by Jobcentres, or sanctioned, left with no money and can’t pay the rent. It’s not fair to have people looking for work until 75.

“A lot of employers don’t want the responsibility if you are over 60 or have health issues,” she added. “They’d rather save money taking on someone under 25.”

The decline of seaside resorts

People sit in the sun on deck chairs at Central Pier in Blackpool, northern England July 24, 2013. British beach resorts, which flourished in the 19th century and earlier, have tempted tourists for years with amusement arcades, fairground rides and cheap and cheerful souvenirs. However, as a 2013 report by the Centre for Social Justice states, many seaside towns suffered as from the 1970s it became cheaper and easier for British tourists to travel abroad. Now, according to the Office for National Statistics, larger seaside towns in England suffer from higher-than-average levels of deprivation compared to the rest of the country. Nevertheless, they do continue to attract holiday makers. Picture taken July 24, 2013. REUTERS/Phil Noble (BRITAIN - Tags: SOCIETY TRAVEL)
People sit in the sun on deck chairs at central Pier in Blackpool. Photo: REUTERS/Phil Noble

The fortunes of seaside towns have faded since their glory days in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Victorian railways helped Blackpool boom, bringing families from across the country for affordable holidays at its famous beach, piers and promenade. The town once had seven theatres, attracting talents like Morecambe and Wise and Cilla Black.

But UK resorts have been hit hard by the rise of cheap flights and package holidays abroad since the 1950s.

Thousands of the old holiday flats and B&Bs in central Blackpool have been converted into houses of multiple occupation (HMO), often poor in quality and made up of many self-contained flats.

This cheap accommodation, seasonal work and apparent nostalgia for the seaside mean Blackpool does still attract newcomers, with around 8,000 residents moving from elsewhere in the UK every year.

Blackpool is an ‘importer of people with poorer health’

But the major challenge for life expectancy was laid out starkly in the public health report: “Blackpool is a net importer of people with poorer health, unemployment and precarious labour, and a net exporter of people with good health and skilled labour.”

One local politician, who did not wish to be named, told Yahoo Finance UK newer residents were the reason life expectancy was low, suggested longstanding residents were typically healthier. “People who already have problems and want to escape somewhere come to Blackpool, because they came as a child.”

Figures suggest many of the drug, alcohol and other problems in the town disproportionately affect its newest residents, while almost half of them are thought to be single men.

Figures for self-harm and suicide. Photo: Blackpool council
Figures for self-harm and suicide. Photo: Blackpool council

Council data shows the neighbourhoods with the lowest life expectancy “correlate closely” with the areas where such accommodation dominates, and where inward migration has been highest.

“There’s only seasonal, temporary work, so people struggle, then take drugs, drink and eat unhealthily,” said Mark Mason, 53, a Blackpool-born IT manager and pension trustee. “People born and bred here go off to live somewhere else —I’ve moved a few miles out now.”

He said he had a work pension, but without it any hike to retirement ages would have been “a big problem” for him. “I don’t want to be working 37 hours a week in my 70s, I want to be enjoying myself.”

“What’s the point of paying in you never hit retirement age?” he said. “They’re pushing it further away from you, and you get a pittance too. It’s scary in places like Blackpool.”

‘Determined focus to improve citizens’ health’

Conservative Party Member of Parliament (MP) Boris Johnson looks through a telescope on Blackpool's north pier during the annual party conference in Blackpool, northern England October 3, 2005. REUTERS/Ian Hodgson
New prime minister Boris Johnson in Blackpool during the Conservative party conference in 2005, with the Blackpool tower in the distance. Photo: REUTERS/Ian Hodgson

But the picture is far from uniformly bleak. The overall health of residents has improved over the past decade, with local authority figures showing smoking rates and early deaths from heart disease, strokes, cancer and suicide have fallen.

Blackpool’s seafront has been revamped, rules on housing quality have been tightened and investment has flown into its London rail links, hotels, industrial development around the airport site and a new tram system.

A report on seaside towns by MPs earlier this year said tourist numbers had proved resilient in recent years, with Blackpool still by far Britain’s most popular seaside resort and leisure giant Merlin running its iconic Tower and ballroom.

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“There’s a determined focus from both parties to improve the town and the health of its citizens,” said Tony Williams, leader of the Conservative party opposition on Blackpool council.

Williams said: “People pick on Blackpool, but there are people on the beach, the promenade is crowded and there’s lots of hotel developments going on.”

He said the pension age proposal was “utter nonsense” and not party policy, a message also made clear on Wednesday night by work and pensions minister Amber Rudd.

‘Look for things for people to do in retirement instead’

Not all skilled young people leave the town either, with barman Kyle Sharples planning to stay in Blackpool.

He said he had spent a few years “bouncing between different jobs” and not saved much for his own retirement yet, but had gone to university and would soon start on a teacher training scheme.

He pointed out not everyone fared well in retirement too. “Some people who’ve just retired come into this pub, and within weeks they’re going stir crazy. They miss work, they don’t have anything to fill the void.”

The think tank report itself also suggested only raising the retirement age if older workers received far more support and training at work.

But Sharples had a different idea: “They should look for more things for people to do in retirement instead.”

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