LONGEVITY has appeared to be on a one-way trajectory over the past century, with scientific advancements and healthier lifestyles allowing people to live longer than ever before.

But a government-appointed expert has warned that progress in life expectancy is slowing down, triggering fears that a rise in the state pension age is a blunt tool that will harm the poorest in society.

Sir Michael Marmot, director of the Institute of Health Equity at University College London, has called for an inquiry to investigate why both male and female life expectancy at birth today is experiencing one of the worst growth rates in Europe. According to figures provided by Eurostat, longevity in the UK is still higher than the EU average, but lags behind countries like Switzerland, Sweden and Norway.

There are signs that Scotland is being hit particularly hard by stuttering life expectancy, contributing to a fall from 16th to 20th place in a global table of wellbeing this week.

Scotland was one of only five countries to slump down the Index of Social and Economic Well-being over the last decade, with England maintaining its 12th position.

The report said Scotland’s a failure to improve its “very poor life expectancy…in relative terms” was to blame, along with falling incomes associated with a decline in North Sea Oil revenues and “worsening education performance”.

What does this mean for the state pension? In July, the UK Government announced that the state pension age is set to increase from 67 to 68 in 2037 – seven years earlier than planned. It means that half a million Scots in their late 30s and 40s will have to work an extra year before claiming their state pension.

The Scottish National Party reaffirmed its opposition to the plans on the grounds of Scotland’s lower life expectancy rates, due to what First Minister Nicola Sturgeon described as “historic and deeply ingrained public health challenges".

Ms Sturgeon has called for an Independent Savings and Pensions Commission to look at the “demographic needs of different parts of the UK in relation to the state pension age”, adding that she could see “no reason” why the state pension age should go beyond 68.

Jon Hatchett, head of corporate consulting at pensions firm Hymans Robertson, said: “While UK average life expectancy is now 81, averages mask huge disparities. Life expectancy improvements amongst all but the better-off households have more or less stalled this decade, with many putting the blame on government austerity measures.”

Analysis by Hymans Robertson found that the state pension age would be 74 if it had kept pace with longevity changes and, while Mr Hatchett said people should “not be dropping down dead in the workplace” any more, he supported moves to raise the state pension age sooner.

His comments come as Hymans Robertson held a special summit on the longevity challenge in London this week. Experts speaking at the event agreed that there was little chance of the Government reversing changes to the state pension, with younger workers needing to save far more into their pension than was necessary in years gone by.

Tom McPhail of financial firm Hargreaves Lansdown said: “The message for people saving today is: ‘Look, you’re going to get £8,300 a year from the state and if you want more, you’re going to have to save for it…but everybody gets the same deal.’

“That makes communicating around private savings far simpler than trying to finesse that and come up with different systems for different geographical locations, lifestyles or wealth.

“If you means-test [the state pension], not only does it get more complicated but if you’re not careful, you end up actively dis-incentivising people from saving. The Government has come up with this magic dial that it can keep turning so that if you just keep raising the state pension you’re dealing with how you make state pensions affordable.

“We’re spending five to six per cent of GDP [on state pensions] and, broadly, we’re going to stay there.”

Others have called for more flexibility to be built into the system to iron out inequality.

Ben Franklin from the International Longevity Institute told the conference: “Too often, politicians have suggested that we should move to flexible working once we retire, but the reality is that for lots of people in low-paying jobs, they just can’t afford to do that.”

The ILC will publish research later this month suggesting how the Government can help those with ill health or disabilities access the state pension sooner.