In a forthcoming international study of the impact of ageing Britain is cited as having one of the worst records for draining national coffers of cash to fund expensive early retirement schemes.
The drive to make the world's economies leaner has resulted in a costly pool of idle late-middle-aged people. Inadequate education has left them ill-prepared for often more than 20 years of retirement, a study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development reveals.
The most common retirement age for British male white-collar workers is now 57. Norway also faces major problems as the overwhelming majority of workers retire seven years earlier than the statutory age.
Results of the study were discussed at an international conference on adult education in Washington DC, organised jointly by the OECD and US department of education last week.
The conference concluded that people who stay in lifelong learning remain healthier and live longer. They remain more active as volunteers in the community and as part-timers in the workplace than those who do not. They also cope better when resources are limited.
More than 40 per cent of young people stay on for higher education in the 29 countries studied by the OECD. And with an average life expectancy of 74 years, only 32 to 34 years are spent in productive work. There is therefore an urgent need to stop people becoming "dependent" for up to 40 years, the OECD says.
The OECD study, Maintaining Prosperity in an Ageing Society, looks at the wider health and social welfare implications of alternatives to retirement. It will go to education, employment and health and social welfare ministers in all the member countries on April 27.
It calls for a complete reshaping of the way we organise our lives and pay for education and retirement. The OECD will recommend an end to the rigid retirement age, a switch of resources from unemployment support to education and increased flexibility over the organisation of learning, work, and leisure time.
Tom Alexander, OECD director of education, employment, labour and social affairs, told the conference: "You can still have early retirement but within the resources available at the time. The problem is, if we are going to live longer we must organise ourselves socially and live more useful lives.
"The conclusion emerging from our analysis is given that we are living longer, we are going to have to work longer and more productively if we are going to sustain the wealth of ourselves and our countries."
One of the biggest obstacles to change was the vested interests of government departments, preventing wider reforms across the boundaries of education, employment and social welfare. "We have already asked education ministers what they want from employment ministers and vice versa. In June we will ask social policy ministers how they see their work fitting in."