Thursday, 13 October 2011

Pensions: unsexy, but in need of this generation's attention

This week has seen the Coalition playing hokey-cokey with the pension age (see: BBC, FT, Guardian, Telegraph). Women everywhere suddenly find themselves completely confused as to whether they're now going to recieve a state pension aged 60, or 65, or 66, or, bizarrely, 65.5. Indeed, there will be many women on the threshold who are completely unaware of these changes, only to be unexpectedly informed that they will have to work five years longer than they had planned.

There's been a lot of discourse around the fact that the changes will hit women hardest: common consensus seems to be that, yes, the state pension age is rising and it's infuriating that some women will now have to re-arrange their life-plans as they'll have to push retirement back five or so years; on the other hand, goes the argument, the life-expectancy rate is rising and the retirement age must rise with it. The reason women are at the heart of the debate is that men already recieve their state pensions at 65, whereas women have long been entitled to the state's paltry £100 when they hit 60; to many observers this seems grossly unfair, considering the fact that women have a longer average life-expectancy than men, but the state facilitates them retiring earlier. Perhaps in the modern world this view has greater currency than it would have 20 years ago, when you could have knocked the argument down by simply pointing out that the majority of women worked part-time if they worked at all, devoting their time to child-caring; this state of things almost forced men to work longer, as families didn't have the benefit of a dual-income. Now that most women work full-time (or at least would choose if there wasn't so much unemployment around), this argument falls flat on its face; indeed, some will no doubt argue, if women want equality they must accept the responsibilities as well as the benefits, and having to work until 65 can be a grim but unavoidable responsibility. After all, the state can ill-afford the £60bn it dishes out per year in state pensions.

Rupert Murdoch: still head of News International aged 80

This is all fair enough. The point that no-one seems to be raising is, in my eyes, the most important one: women can try to, can want to, work until 65 or even later; but whereas men are seen as increasingly distinguished and respectable as they age, women's currency rapidly dimishes. Men in their 60s, 70s, even 80s*, sit on FTSE-100 company boards across the world; the minute a woman starts going grey and gets crows feet society treats her like an old bat. In lower-paid jobs, this tendency to consign women to the scrapheap long before men are written-off is less obviously pronounced; older women are able to settle into less demanding jobs as they age, secure in the knowledge that there's a mass of red-tape and legal paperwork between them and age-related redundancy. Thus, we find that older women are confined to lower-paid, less high-powered jobs as they age; their bosses increasingly give the fresh-faces the more exciting work, the work that could further careers. Somehow, men manage to retain the respect of their employers; they acquire a statesman-like dignity in the workplace as they age. Even older women's years extensive CVs, built up over decades, aren't enough to earn them respect from employers. How many employers would turn away older women in favour of young blood? I'd reckon most. And who will be the first to go when the spectre of redundancy looms? Those reaching the end of their working lives, who are deemed no longer equal to the draining working week. These aging working women - no matter how lightening quick their intellect, no matter how quickly they can do a Rubik's Cube, or complete the Times crossword, or whip you at chess - are being told that they have to cling on to employment that's trying desperately to buck them off.

For young women, this may seem a very long way away from their daily realities. The problem is, pensions and aging aren't sexy topics: why debate the complexities of the state pension scheme when the political arena is buzzing with more vital, more seemingly relevant questions? But unless society's attitudes to late-middle-aged women start changing now, our generation of women will be facing the same discrimination, but by that point life-expectancy will have risen to such a degree that we could be expected to work until 70, 75, 80. Disregarding the fact that at 75 most women will probably find working full time extremely taxing, there's the issue that women who are able to work, or who are required to work by the high state pension age, may be denied a job. They're then left, as of old, financially relying on their husbands or families. Unless attitudes start changing now, unless we start accepting that many women are no less able to run a company into their 60s than the countless over-60 male CEOs, we're consigning successive generations of women to an old age of reliance on men. And we can't let that state of things return.

...and many, many more. If you can find a female CEO (or in a comparatively high-powered role) over 65, by all means leave a comment. Maybe you'll win something.

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