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The Education Forum

Changes in Society: Pensions

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Here is a scandal. It is all around us, silent and undiscussed, in every city and every village. It is a scandal in the shadows: the plight of older, poorer women who have been cut out of decent pensions, after lives of caring and hard work. It is a scandal hidden by boring-sounding language, by sufferers who are too proud to campaign, and by powerlessness.

It is the scandal of the woman living alone, picking out the cut-price fruit in the hour before the supermarket closes. It is the scandal of women in old age and pain waiting in the heat for crowded buses. It is women left and women forgotten, who have wiped and fed, cleaned and tended, but who in all that time never built up the pensions they would have had from sitting in an office or driving a van. It is, finally, the woman in the care home, her life reduced to a cabinet of photos and a narrow bed.

I can't avoid statistics. Here's one that ought to be known by everyone interested in public decency: over 92% of men retire with the full basic state pension in their own right. The figure for women? Just 16%.

This is not a scandal that has been caused by malice or brutal economic necessity but by the failure of politics to keep up with change: changing lives and changing lifestyles. The first thing to remember is how much longer we are living: a quarter of women now alive will live to at least 93. Two-thirds of all pensioners are women; or to look at the same thing from the other side, half of all women over 65 are single, most of them widowed. Just imagine the impact on all that of a pension system designed for men.

For the present pension system is indeed based on some very old assumptions. Once, an overwhelmingly male, full-time and married workforce could be relied on, more or less, to look after their spouses in retirement. Divorce was uncommon and the carers, overwhelmingly female, could expect to be cared for themselves, at least financially, towards the end of their lives. This was the world of the postwar welfare state. It produced the couple's basic state pension, in which the share of the dependant wife was an extra 60%.

This world has gone. Women have now entered the labour market and are vigorously encouraged by politicians to do so. Yet they have rarely been callous enough to shrug off all their traditional caring roles, for children and elderly relatives, and so they tend to work shorter hours than men, and often for a mix of different employers, with catastrophic effects on their own pension entitlement. In fact, nearly half of all working women earn less than the level at which they would qualify for national insurance. As Baroness Hollis, the former work and pensions minister, put it in a key Lords speech last month, a woman in this position "is doing what we as a society want her to do, putting her family first in a manner that is decent. Then we punish her for that, for doing what we and she believe is right".

Nor can such a woman expect, even if she wishes it, to be supported by a husband in old age. Half of marriages now end in divorce, and anyway the marriage rate is falling fast. According to Hollis, over the next 15 years, "nearly 40% of all women between 55 and 64 will not be married and therefore not protected by a husband's pension, as in the past". Single annuities die with the husbands; the widow will have no occupational pension and, if she has been divorced, no rights to a man's basic state pension. Hollis describes the duties of caring for children and the elderly and the breakdown of marriage as a triple hit for women's pension rights.

There are plenty of women who know what this means, in daily scrimping and fear of the future - just a lower, thinner quality of life in the middle of buzzing, complacent consumer affluence. Far from feminism having won its key battles, the gap between men and women grows as we age, steadily yet dramatically.

And this is the moment to act. Government ministers, in particular Gordon Brown and David Blunkett, are awaiting the final report on pensions from Adair Turner. In domestic policy, it has the potential to be the single most important moment in the life of the new government. On Tuesday there was a pensions summit at which it seemed to some observers that Mr Blunkett was veering towards retaining pension credits, rather than creating a new universal citizen's pension.


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