Elaine Crory talks to TLR about WASPI and Pension Equality.
Pensions. I know, grab ’em right from the start, right? It’s a boring topic to many, and even more so when discussing state pensions for women born in the 1950s. It doesn’t exercise many beyond, well, women born in the 1950s. It should though, and feminists across the UK should make it their business to be informed and to actively support the WASPI (Women Against State Pension Inequality) campaign.
This story goes back to 1995, when the then Conservative government announced plans to equalise state pension eligibility age for men and women. Convention, at that point, was that women retired at 60, men at 66; the argument was that having both men and women retiring at the same age would actually help promote equality. WASPI campaigners argue that this change was not efficiently communicated to the women it would affect (those born from April 1951), leading to confusion and misinformation, and as such they did not have the time to adjust their career plans accordingly. The more recent coalition government moved the plans up a gear in 2011, accelerating the policy so that women cannot claim their pension until the age of 65 from November 2018, and until 66 from October 2020.
So what of the equality argument? Surely, if feminists truly believe that women and men are equal and that women ought to be paid the same as men, they should support equality in state pensions as in everything else? On paper, yes, absolutely. The issue is not the principle, rather it lies with the targeted demographic and the fact that in this instance, rigid equality will actually hurt women’s financial stability. The Institute of Fiscal Studies is reporting that this change has already contributed over £5billion to government coffers, but this has left 1.1 million women in their sixties worse off by an average of £32 per week – and it is hurting the poorest women the most.
Women born in 1951 left school on average at the age of 15, and usually entered the workplace straight away. Lacking any formal qualifications and being hampered by gendered assumptions, usually they worked at low-status, low-pay jobs. They would have been in the workforce for almost two decades before an amendment to the law preventing sex discrimination mandated equal pay for equal work, which has obviously not been a silver bullet for the problem of unequal pay anyway, and already many years of career advancement opportunities behind her male peers. The vast majority of these women became mothers, usually to several children, but they would have been 43 and generally done having children before the their younger sisters won the right to take maternity leave.
When we talk about equality, about the gender pay gap, about the glass ceiling and the sticky floor, we too often ignore the fact that motherhood is often the turning point in women’s lives. Recent statistics show women actually being paid more than men until around the age of 30. What changes? A number of things, for sure, including the likelihood that male bosses are more likely to promote young men, but in many cases, that is around the age where they become mothers. Maternity leave, flexible working requests and part-time hours are just not appealing to employers, goes the counter-argument, and parenthood is a choice. There are enough holes in that argument to make for a whole other article, but for the moment, let’s remember that while parenthood stalls women’s careers in the here and now, things were far worse for those born in 1951, likely becoming a parent in the early 1970s.
Child benefit, the state allowance to help parents and guardians financially, was phased in between 1977 and 1979, meaning that for a number of years the average 1951 woman was probably raising children without any state help whatsoever. For the women on the lowest pay, it is likely also that they left their jobs and became stay at home parents, meaning the tiny state allowance represented the only money in their pocket. Why did they leave their jobs? In many cases, it made no financial sense to continue to work and pay childcare costs that outstripped a meagre salary, especially if she were married, and there were fewer protections and less social expectation that she would do so, because her job was seen as less than a career. By the time they were ready to look for full time work again, things had changed dramatically. Many of the jobs they had held before having children now required qualifications and skills that were brand new, and suddenly they were competing for low tier jobs with people fresh out of school. So many of these women ended up in low paid service jobs, waiting out their time. And here we are.
One of the key issues in this situation is the “lost years” of these women’s lives; the years they devoted to bearing and caring for children, to caring for older relatives, to cooking every meal for their husband and children. It’s not work in the eyes of the revenue commissioner – despite what it contributes to the economy – and in the eyes of many young feminists. But it is. Backbreaking, energy sapping, never a day off or a moment’s rest, hardly a penny to call her own – all the while making it possible for a male partner to rise through the ranks at work by taking care of everything on the homefront so that he can put in extra hours to impress the boss and come home to a home cooked meal and a clean, pressed shirt for tomorrow.
Sometimes that is a choice, certainly. But for many women, especially those born in 1951, it was an inevitability. Nobody enjoys changing nappies and mopping floors. Self-sacrifice should not be punished with financial struggles later in life. We must support these women, and remember always that many of the rights we take for granted were won by them.