Retiring lives? Old age, work and welfare
Retiring lives? Old age, work and welfare

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Retiring lives? Old age, work and welfare

3.2 The 1908 Pensions Act and the inter-war years: counting age and discounting older workers

The 1908 Pensions Act represented the first time welfare interventions in older age were based on chronological age. It set the pension age at 70 years. Prior to this, although chronological age was often noted in Poor Law records, it did not constitute the basis of eligibility. Rather, age, and older age specifically, was constructed in terms of particular forms of embodiment, with older people being defined as those whose bodies were ‘past’ work, ‘worn out’ by work or ‘too frail’ to work. The state pension was tax-funded and therefore non-contributory – meaning people did not have to make contributions to the scheme in order to receive the pension it offered. Trade unions and some women's organisations in the period leading up to the Pensions Act had stressed the importance of this feature, arguing that even small contributions would be prohibitive for low-paid workers and women. However, few other concessions were made to the demands of these organisations. In a period when the average trade union member died at the age of 50 years (Vincent, 1991, p. 27) modest calls for a pension age of 60 or 65 were ignored. This feature effectively excluded many older, working-class people, as Extract 5 indicates. It is taken from a married women's work survey conducted by the Women's Industrial Council (1909–10), and refers to an interview with one woman, aged 69 and widowed, living in a Yorkshire woollen weaving district.

Extract 5 Not yet 70: a long and hard wait for the pension

She began work at the age of four selling tea-cakes from house to house; at eight began rag-picking and afterwards became a weaver … [She] has worked regularly whenever she could get the work to do, until recently, when her health had broken down … Her husband always sickly ceased work in 1886 and she had to work for both and meet the expense of a protracted illness. … She went back recently to rag-picking at 10s. a week, in the hope of keeping off the Poor Law until she can claim her pension … In spite of all her troubles and hard work [she] has brought up a large family. She has had fifteen children, of whom seven are living and 22 grandchildren. It is touching to learn that this old lady, having been ill, was fearful she would not live long enough to draw her old age pension.

(quoted in Thane, 2000, p. 277)

The old age pension was set at a very low level. Consequently, it could only support subsistence in conjunction with a patchwork of other income sources older people had previously put together as recipients of Poor Law out-door relief. Only British citizens were eligible to claim the pension. Coinciding with a rise in anti-Semitism, this saw Jewish immigrants increasingly being denied citizenship, and so prohibited from any entitlement to the pension offered by the 1908 Act (Thane, 2000, p. 223). Despite these and other limitations, take-up of the pension far exceeded government expectations. Just under half a million people claimed the first old age pension when it was paid in January 1909, around two-thirds of whom were women (Thane, 2000, p. 226).

The 1908 Pensions Act represented the first time connections were drawn between chronological age and pensions, but it did not signify retirement in the sense of an end to paid work. However, such connections had become a sedimented part of state practice with respect to sections of its own workforce. Occupational pensions had long been a feature of the employment contract in the civil service. In the mid 1850s the system was reviewed and a retirement age of 60 years was recommended based on the argument that this represented ‘an age at which bodily and mental vigour often declines’ (Thane, 2000, p. 240). Though not formally implemented, most civil servants did retire in their sixties; creating an apparent paradox. Thus, at the beginning of the twentieth century, relatively affluent (and overwhelmingly male) civil servants officially became ‘old’ earlier in life than did older poor women, who were not officially defined as ‘old’ until they reached 70 years of age and qualified for a pension under the 1908 Act.

Occupational schemes in the private sector were generally imposed from above by employers and usually only extended to male skilled workers (Thane, 2000). When making the case for the introduction of occupational schemes, the economic or business case was invariably emphasised, as the following quote from a speech made in 1906 by Seebohm Rowntree on the introduction of such a scheme in his family's firm indicates:

Many firms may hesitate to adopt a Pension Scheme … but it is probable that these very firms carry heavy costs in ‘hidden pensions’ without realising the fact. If a firm establishes a liberal pension scheme it will doubtless at the same time fix a definite retiring age and will thus never find itself with a number of old workers … not only does the firm lose on [these workers] individually but their presence tends to lower the pace and lessen the output of the whole shop.

(quoted in Thane, 2000, p. 243)

The emergence and ascendancy of Taylorist or scientific forms of management in the early part of the twentieth century further enhanced the control employers had exerted over labour through the expansion of the factory system in the nineteenth century. These developments have been cogently explored through a Marxist lens in the work of Braverman (1974). Driven by a strong deskilling dynamic, the introduction of assembly-line production marked the culmination of this process, as the ever increasing speed of the line provided the mechanism through which the skill and autonomy of labour became subordinated to the machinery of manufacture. Sections of the labour force constructed as being unable to keep up with this intensification of paid work were thereby constituted as surplus labour through processes of marginalisation and exclusion, their participation in paid employment being represented as a threat or drain on levels of efficiency and productivity.

In 1925, the Conservative Government introduced the Old Age and Widows and Orphans Contributory Pensions Act. As the Act's title suggests, this involved a contributory insurance scheme as opposed to the non-contributory, tax-funded base of the 1908 Pensions Act. It reduced the retirement age from 70 to 65 years for those making contributions under the 1911 National Insurance Act. Predicated on the ‘male breadwinner’ model, the overwhelming majority of married women were only included in a subordinate and conditional sense as ‘wives’ or ‘widows’. Effectively constituting their personal lives in terms of the domestic domain, this gendered hierarchy of entitlement also constituted the personal lives of men through the construct of full-time and continuous paid employment. Further, the inclusion of pensions provision under the umbrella of the 1911 National Insurance Act meant that the pension was effectively furnished through a tax on the working classes as the principle transfer of resources took place within the working classes (Vincent, 1991, p. 37). Many of those in low-paid and insecure forms of employment struggled to pay this, while those not covered by the scheme continued to rely on the 1908 Act, and so were not eligible for a state pension until they were 70 years old.

In the period between the 1908 and 1925 Acts, Britain's political landscape changed significantly. Marked by intense class struggles and the mobilisations of the first wave of feminists, the period witnessed the extension of democratic voting rights by 1918 to all working-class men and some working-class women. Full female suffrage was achieved by 1928. Collectivist or social reformist political ideologies became increasingly influential. Arguing that proactive state intervention represented the best guarantor of individual and societal well-being, these challenged the laissez-faire, liberal ideologies which had dominated the British political arena during the nineteenth century.

The high levels of unemployment which characterised the Depression of the 1930s make it difficult to discern the impact of the 1925 Act on retirement rates, in that older people reporting themselves as ‘retired’ may actually have been expressing their difficulties in re-entering the labour market (Thane, 2000, p. 281). Further, the link between unemployment and retirement became a significant feature of pension debates during the 1930s, with those on the Left and Right representing retirement as the solution to the problem of unemployment. This operated to construct the personal lives of older workers as outside the domain of paid employment, and within the arena of public and private welfare policies, and often coincided with calls for the exclusion of much younger workers. For instance, a draft of the 1929 Labour General Election Manifesto argued:

Every year about 400,000 young children, inadequately educated and inadequately trained, are brought into the labour market; while at the other end there are hundreds of thousands of aged persons who are compelled by poverty to struggle for employment.

(quoted in Macnicol, 1998, p. 228)

The emergence of new industries and the expansion of clerical occupations, together with assembly-line production, witnessed a growth in female paid employment and off-set levels of unemployment amongst women. At the height of the Depression, women's employment fell by 3 per cent compared to 11 per cent for men (Walby, 1996, p. 167). Nonetheless, patriarchal exclusions of women, and particularly married women, from paid employment provided one of the strategies through which the state, employers and trade unions representing the interests of male workers sought to address the problem of unemployment. Constructing the problem of unemployment as one that impacted on the lives of younger, married men, the personal lives of women, irrespective of their employment or marital status, were thereby defined in relation to unpaid labour in the domestic domain.

Connections between gender, class, age, unemployment and pensions were particularly emphasised by the National Spinsters Pension Association (NSPA). Founded in 1935, the NSPA was a broad-based organisation representing the interests of lower middle-class and working-class unmarried women, which campaigned on the single issue of reducing unmarried women's retirement age to 55 years. Membership of the NSPA was particularly strong in and around textile towns in the north of England, which had traditionally employed large groups of women. Arguing that its members found it difficult to retain or enter paid employment once they reached middle age, the NSPA's calls for a reduction in the retirement age of unmarried women were linked to the role unmarried women often played as informal carers (Holden, 2004). Suggesting that ‘dutiful’ daughters often found it difficult to re-enter the labour market after they had left to care for elderly parents, the NSPA highlighted the way this could jeopardise any previous pension contribution record, as the following account from 1938 by one of its members indicates:

I was in domestic service, and paid from the commencement of the Insurance Act … My age is 56 in June next, just now I am looking after my aged mother who is 86 and have had to help to support her for the last 36 years. I found I could not keep on paying, I was in benefit till last year and now they write and tell me it has lapsed.

(quoted in Macnicol, 1998, p. 313)

Figure 5
© Florence White. Courtesy of West Yorkshire Archive Service ©
© Florence White. Courtesy of West Yorkshire Archive Service
Figure 5 On the march: single ‘sisters’ unite through the NSPA, London, 1939

In making this point, the NSPA not only illuminated the way in which the lives of its members often involved both unpaid care work and paid employment, it also underlined the tension that pension entitlements predicated only on the latter generated for older women. This tension, as we see below, shapes the lives of many married women too, given their frequent involvement in unpaid care work. However, the NSPA's demands were articulated in a highly sectional manner. Its calls for a reduction in the retirement age extended to unmarried women only and not to women per se. Further, in making this demand, it expressed considerable antagonism towards other groups of women, arguing that unmarried women's contributions represented an unfair subsidy to the pensions of widows, orphans and the wives of male pensioners.

The sectionalism informing the NSPA's platform alienated feminist organisations and other women within the labour movement. For example, feminist groups representing the interests of middle-class women expressed concerns that a reduction in single women's retirement age would make employers more likely to discriminate against them. Nonetheless, the NSPA did receive support from textile unions, though not from the Trade Union Council (TUC), which preferred to campaign for reducing the retirement age of all women. In 1940, the retirement age of all women was reduced to 60 years. However, despite claims made on its own behalf, it appears that the NSPA's campaign played little or no part in this policy shift. Though applied to all women, the reduction in retirement age reflected an apparent recognition that married women were on average five years younger than their husbands; a policy shift that effectively defined women's older age relative to that of men (Thane, 2000).

Activity 4

Take a few minutes to reflect on the divisions of class and gender illuminated by the NSPA's demands, and the rationale informing the eventual reduction of women's retirement age to 60 years. Think about how you might explain these from both a class and gender perspective. As you do, try to identify the intersections and tensions involved.


Marxist perspectives foreground inequalities mapped around class divisions, while feminist accounts emphasise differences and inequalities organised around gender. Analyses developed by Marxist-feminists attempt to explore the interplay between class and gender, and the processes of compromise and tension informing it (Walby, 1986; Skeggs, 1997). Processes of industrial restructuring in the textile industry had generated significant levels of unemployment during the period surrounding the NSPA's campaign. The support of textile unions for a reduction in the retirement age of single women involved an expression of class solidarity with sections of its female constituency. However, the unions' support can also be interpreted as articulating the patriarchal interests of their working-class male members, as a reduction in the retirement age of single women would have removed a section of female labour from the textile workforce and consolidated the position of male workers within the industry.

The TUC's position, echoed by the Chamberlain Government's ultimate decision to reduce the retirement age of all women to 60 years, can be interpreted as reflecting similar patriarchal interests. Further, from a feminist perspective, this gendered policy also reinforced the controls that men were able to exert over women's unpaid work in the domestic domain. Thus, the retirement of older women from paid employment did not signal their ‘retirement’ from unpaid work in the home, but rather reinforced women's role in this regard. Recent studies have demonstrated how the concept of retirement is profoundly gendered and thus highly problematic for women, as women's retirement from paid work rarely involves their retirement from unpaid work in the domestic domain. Constructed around men's experience of, and exit from, paid work, the concept does not therefore accurately reflect older women's experience of work – which often involves a continuity of unpaid labour long after their retirement from paid work (Arber and Ginn, 1995).


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