In 2013 my life began to eat itself. In 2012 I’d taken voluntary redundancy from a demanding job to spend time with my father, dying of lung cancer. I knew I did not have enough money in my small pension to keep me going if I lived to be 83 – the average life expectancy for a woman in the UK – and I planned to go into part-time work to earn enough to keep me going while I wrote a book I’d had commissioned. Writing was… is… my retirement plan. The devil in my plan was hiding in the thumping great detail that at 58, in London, I was apparently unemployable. I began an enthusiastic job search two weeks after Dad died but six months and over 500 applications later, anxiously watching as my savings dwindled to nothing and supplementing my more or less non-existent diet with nicked buns from meetings at the House of Commons, I was forced to rethink my options.
A large part of my doubtful future is down to the 1995 Pensions Act, which mostly concerned itself with company pension schemes but included a clause stating that there should be a phasing in of equalisation in state pension ages for men (who retired at 65) and women (who then retired at 60). No one had, or has, a problem with this. A problem does arise in the fact that very little was done about “phasing” anything and that includes notifying the women affected. In 2011 the coalition government accelerated the changes to a retirement age for women of 65 in 2018 and then to 66 in 2020, allowing most women no time to make changes to plans that had often been in place for decades. For 1950s women, retirement has become a little like chasing a mirage – you can see it but you can’t touch it.
In Thursday’s House of Commons debate MP Mhairi Black described the situation as being “shafted and short-changed purely for the fact of when I was born and that I am a woman”. She added, “that’s not my definition of equality”. I don’t think it’s anyone’s. The motion called on the government to rethink current arrangements and gradually phase in the changes while at the same time giving financial help to those women who stand to be most disadvantaged. My generation of 1950s women, who have been caught in the double bind of a shifting retirement age and what is euphemistically known as “catastrophic early retirement” (age discriminatory unemployment), were prominent among the 100,000-plus signatures on the e-petition calling for action.
Let’s consider my generation for a moment. We are the women who campaigned for equal pay and equal rights, the women who were encouraged to pay “married woman’s stamp” and a lower National Insurance contribution which equates to a lower state pension (which we now have to wait a further six years to reach). We are the women who were not allowed to join company pension schemes, the women for whom the career path most travelled was into low pay. We are the women who almost always got married but now belong to a generation where 46 per cent of marriages end in divorce and where only 34 per cent of us aged 60-64 are “economically active”. We are the women who find ourselves stepping out of work to care for ailing partners or parents, or to look after grandchildren so that our own children can work. We are the women who live alone on a single income with no pension and who, unbelievably, were only told about this at age 57, 58 and in some cases just months before expecting to retire at 60.
As I watched the Commons debate I felt a cold hard knot of anger form. Anger that at one point the Government benches contained only two (two!) MPs while the Opposition front bench held no less than 8 shadow ministers. Anger that we were told that “this government is doing very well on behalf of women” and that “there is a danger of overstating the case”, both statements that are patently untrue. Anger that the Pensions Minister (Baroness Altman, who now resides in the Lords), who previously said that women were not given enough notice of such a huge change, now remains curiously silent. Anger that our pensions rights have apparently been trashed in the interests of achieving a budget surplus.
The vote was a resounding 158 to zero in favour but this was a Backbench motion and as such not binding on the Government. So, where to next? There is a precedent in the European Court of Human Rights for making transitional pension arrangements and in 2011 the Coalition set aside just over £1bn in a tacit admission of the hardship caused. Thursday’s debate is only the first round and I, for one, look forward to taking this fight all the way to the final bell.