Pensioners deserve dignity in old age – even the ones with no occupational pension. The elderly paid into the National Insurance scheme all their working lives – or had good reason for being out of work.
For men, good reason was often illness or redundancy. When industries were closed down and large numbers were suddenly out of work, their workless state was not of their own making. They should not be punished in old age.
For women, working lives were very different in the past. Today’s female pensioners were usually expected to give up work when they had a family and concentrate all their efforts on looking after their husband and children, while their husband brought in the money to keep them all. If they worked at all after marriage, it was likely to be a little part-time job that paid a pittance. In those days the gap between the pay of men and women was wide, because the men were seen as the breadwinners and the women were supposedly only working for ‘pin money.’
When the traditional industries of the north were deliberately closed down by the government policies of the 1980s, whole communities of men, sometimes several generations of the same families, were thrown on the scrap-heap. More concerned by the threat to their own reputations than the ruined lives they had caused, the government then encouraged the older and less able workers to be moved onto incapacity benefit, so that they would not be counted as unemployed. They were then left to rot.
Now the current government want people off incapacity benefit and back into work so that they can benefit from the extra taxes, but employers don’t want older workers – especially if they are long-term unemployed.
These were the men who fought hard for their jobs, through the unions. But Margaret Thatcher was determined to over-rule them and destroy their unions, their industries and in doing so, she also broke their families, their communities, their ability to earn a living and often their health.
It was a Conservative government that threw them on the scrap heap, now another, largely Conservative government suddenly wants them working again to boost the economy. Unfortunately, real life doesn’t work quite like that.
The women who are crossing the new pension age around now – and many of those who will reach it in the next few years are the very women who fought for equal employment rights and equal pay for women in the 1970s and 1980s. They had to fight for the right to earn a living in a society that still saw women as second-class citizens, not capable of doing the same work as men – despite the fact that their mothers and grandmothers proved their capability during two world wars, while the men were away fighting for king and country.
There is a tendency, nowadays, for people to believe that women have always had all the opportunities and full time work they have now – and especially the child-care provisions. Those who think this way often look down on older women who have not led similar lives, as though they were too lazy to shift themselves to find work/ child-care in their younger days. They didn’t try hard enough/ took the easy way out, and so it’s their own fault they have no money in their older years.
This view is ignorant of the facts and short-sighted. The women they are looking down on could be the very women who helped to win the right to access to better work, and forced the employers and politicians to reconsider the problems of childcare, to enable more women to work.
In the 1970s, and for much of the 1980s, child-care places were like gold – especially in more rural areas of the country, and even if a place could be found, the wages paid to a woman may not have covered the cost. There were no government vouchers then. These women often had no choice but to stay at home unless they had family members who could take care of the children. Even when the children were at school, there was still the problem of before and after school hours – and a major barrier to work was school holidays. Jobs were not tailored to school hours, as many have become since, and there was no flexibility. If you wanted to work, you worked the hours set by the employer. There were also no breakfast clubs and after school activities were mainly sports practises.
Even when the change began in the 1980s, it happened much more slowly in many parts of the country – too late for many of the women who had fought for it.
Women now in their late fifties/early sixties have also been particularly badly hit by all they recent changes regarding retirement. They had planned their lives around the old female retirement age of 60. When this was suddenly pushed to 65, it was accepted in the spirit of equality, but brought problems for many because of the attitudes of employers towards older workers. Anyone, male or female who finds themselves without work when they are over 50 can find it almost impossible to find another job. Some people who may have benefited when the number of work-years needed for a state pension was cut to a standard 30 some years ago and felt that they at least had that covered.
Then came the blows. The retirement age for many was pushed back again – more years to struggle for work but no work to be had. Then the number of work-years needed was changed again – and the right to a portion of a husband’s/ex-husband’s pension was removed. Suddenly a woman in her late fifties/ early sixties finds herself being expected to work until 66, 67, 68, etc.
Take the example of Janet, who was divorced in the 1980s, with a young family that forced her to live on benefits until they grew old enough to be left alone. When she was ready to return to full-time work, the jobs had suddenly become tailored to school hours and full-time work was impossible to find. Part-time work left her worse off and increasingly she found employers refused to take her on for part-time work if she already had one part-time job, so she couldn’t make up the hours that way either. She tried self-employment, but couldn’t make enough to live on because she didn’t have enough money to put into the business. She tried gaining qualifications, but found they only gave employers another excuse to reject her.
At one point Janet was told she would be entitled to a full pension – under the 30 work-year ruling with a combination of home-responsibilities protection (hrp), her own contributions and with several years of entitlement to part of her ex-husband’s pension. But now she doesn’t know where she stands, with just the hrp and her own piece-meal contributions. Because most of her work was part-time, she often didn’t earn enough to pay national insurance and during her self-employment phase, she was exempt from payments on account of her low income. She doesn’t think she has enough contributions to cover her for the 35 work-years she now needs. Although in theory she still has time to make this up, in practice, she feels there is little chance, because she is constantly turned down for work for being over-qualified and there are even less full-time jobs available now.
Middle-Age Problems for Both Genders
There are also other problems that people of either gender can come up against in middle age:
– having to give up work to care for elderly parents – or even a partner
– health problems – perhaps from living in poverty
– the benefit trap for those living alone (whether single, divorced, widowed) that makes part-time work unviable – especially if there are travel costs involved.
The Baby-Boomer Generation
The baby-boomer generation, born after the Second World War, is a phenomenon recognised in many countries, through Europe and the USA. In Britain, it began a decade later due to the continuance of rationing and really dates from about 1955 (exactly the birth-year of the first women expected to work until the age of 65) and lasted until the mid 1960s.
This has always been known. So why does the government act as though it’s something they have just discovered?
In actual fact, Britain was on course to weather the pensions time-bomb much better than the rest of Europe, because there was a reserve of money that had been built up from contributions to cover at least most of it. That was until Gordon Brown decided that there was too much money lying there and raided it to pay for other things. That is where this problem started.
It suits the government and the media to give the impression that all the baby-boomer generation are living the life of riley with houses, cars and occupational pensions, etc. SOME of these undoubtedly are in this position, but certainly not all of them. Those whose lives were blighted by the eradication of industry, and those who were forced to stay at home through lack of childcare, and jobs that didn’t (and don’t) pay enough to live on, are wondering where all this money is that they are supposed to have.
Although some will have resigned themselves to their fate over the years, for many, the anger, even bitterness, at the unfairness of society and the lack of help they experienced in trying to rebuild their own lives, still burns not far from the surface. This is the fighting generation, the generation who have fought for change all their lives, and by sheer numbers have achieved many changes – often too late for their own benefit, but they have opened doors for those who follow.
If this government or any future government, think they can easily take away the rights and privileges of old age that this generation has worked so hard for (and many worked for a pittance before minimum wage), they could be in for a big shock. The monster may be grey now, but it is only sleeping and it could yet rise up for one last battle – the grey-power battle.
- Number of over-65s still in work triples in 15 years (theguardian.com)
- Gendered Working – No Change? (dawnrobinsonwalsh.wordpress.com)
- The new normal on the employment front: Part-time jobs with no benefits (intrepidreport.com)