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

3.3 Beveridge and the move towards a ‘species of universalism’

The 1942 Beveridge Report laid the foundations for the 1946 National Insurance Act and the creation of the welfare state. This represented a central plank of the post Second World War reconstruction. State pensions were viewed as offering a basic minimum income to old people, thereby constituting them as part of the nation's social citizenry. However, cultural and economic imperatives privileging the needs of the young over those of the old meant older people's citizenship rights were in reality limited even while they were rhetorically being extended. Beveridge, therefore, argued that ‘it is dangerous to be in any way lavish in old age (until) adequate provision has been assured for all other vital needs, such as the prevention of disease and the adequate nutrition of the young’ (quoted in Phillipson, 1998, p. 68).

The universalism underpinning the social citizenship offered by the welfare state was always partial and contingent (Lewis and Fink, 2004). Bearing the imprint of nineteenth-century welfare policy distinctions between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’, this was mobilised in the post-war period through a two-tier principle. The first tier involved contributory benefits available to ‘the deserving’ with continuous employment records. The second turned on means-tested benefits paid to groups without such an employment record, who were thus constructed as ‘less deserving’. However, this was compounded in the case of the universal pension in that the low level at which it was set – equivalent to 19 per cent of average male manual earnings in 1948 – meant that those without other income sources needed to apply for means-tested supplementary benefits. Further, the stigma attached to such means-tested benefits, and the nineteenth century Poor Law associations they evoked, meant that many of those who were eligible did not apply. This is illustrated by the following quotations from interviews Peter Townsend conducted with older people in the early 1960s, while researching their family lives in the East End of London:

I don't want to tell people all my affairs. They ask too many questions. I'm proud, I suppose.

The pension is different. Everyone has a right to that. But the other, they have to come round every six months or so asking questions.

(quoted in Elder, 1977, p. 66)

Further, those who did apply were frequently subject to invasive forms of official surveillance into their personal lives, as the following quotation from Gladys Elder's life history account of being an old age pensioner (1977) makes clear:

Most pensioners recognize that when the social security officer calls he is more likely to be on the watch for any small improvements in their income, rather than those tell-tale signs that the allowance is too small. Indeed, pensioners admit that they actually appear guilty by the way they excuse themselves, feeling compelled to underline their gratitude and minimize their needs. This feeling of being suspected and being watched is a further indignity suffered by those on Supplementary Benefit.

(Elder, 1977, pp. 39–41

The extension of the contributory principle to the Basic State Pension (BSP) – in which entitlement is predicated on participation in full-time employment over a complete working lifetime – also meant that, as with the 1925 Act, women's personal lives continued to be defined through an assumption of their dependence upon men. Hence, although women's work was seen as playing an important part in the post-war reconstruction, it was conceptualised primarily in terms of unpaid work in the domestic domain. Women's personal lives thereby remained constituted in terms of unpaid labour; a gendered feature that the Beveridgean pension reforms both reflected and reinforced. This was mobilised through provisions allowing married women in employment to opt out of the BSP by making reduced National Insurance contributions, together with the half-test making void any contributions married women made to the BSP unless paid for more than half their married life. Effectively discouraging married women from contributing towards a pension in their own right when in employment, these features were further articulated through the principle of derived benefits. Linking pensions and other benefit entitlements to marriage, this principle operated to compensate women for their labour market exclusion and marginalisation by reinforcing their dependency on men. In so doing, it also privileged the personal lives and experiences of some groups over others, by discriminating against lone mothers and gay and lesbian couples who lived their personal lives outside the heterosexual coupling dictated by marriage (Carabine, 2004).

All of these factors gave the rhetoric of universalism a somewhat hollow sound for older people. So, for example, the National Federation of Old Age Pensions Associations (NFOAPA) – a radical, socialist, working-class pensioner movement which incorporated 400 branches in England, Scotland and Wales by 1940, and boasted a local membership in excess of 3,000 by 1942, concluded that the Beveridgean pension reforms meant that ‘it was not a new world we are heading for, but merely a patched up old one’ (quoted in Macnicol, 1998, p. 388).

Britain was not unique in adopting a contributory approach to providing incomes in older age as the USA and most other European countries had introduced similar contributory state schemes by 1960 (Blackburn, 2002). In so doing, they had all moved towards what Blackburn characterises as a:

species of ‘universality’ still qualified by work record, gender and status. Thus the workings of the contributory principle … meant that they did not in fact offer all citizens of a country, let alone all residents, a pension once they reached the age of retirement. … There was a gendered assumption that men were the breadwinners and that women would be covered by wives and widows claiming entitlement via their husbands' work record. In practice, women were to be excluded from the full pension if they or their husbands did not have a consistent contribution record … Many unmarried women had no proper entitlement and were obliged to apply for Assistance. … Itinerant workers, or ethnic groups suffering social discrimination, or non-registered unemployed, or ex-prisoners, might all find it difficult to attain the minimum contribution record.

(Blackburn, 2002, p. 61)

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s a series of studies illuminating the extent, scale and experience of poverty among older people living in the UK were published (Townsend and Wedderburn, 1965; Coates and Silburn, 1970; Shaw, 1971). Informing a wider ‘rediscovery of poverty’, these studies offered compelling evidence of how the UK's ‘species of universalism’ translated into an impoverished experience of retirement for many older people. The persuasive power of such studies was further reinforced by the research methods deployed. Leaning heavily on in-depth interviews, these yielded a rich array of personal accounts that provided powerful insights into what it felt like to be older and poor in the UK during this period.

These accounts were further reinforced by biographical-based testimonies that older people offered of their own lives. A seminal text here involves Gladys Elder's (1977) The Alienated: Growing Old Today. In this, she blends her own life history with personal accounts offered by other older people, together with evidence from interviews and secondary sources. A staunch campaigner for older people's rights, Gladys Elder – a Scottish, working-class woman – was 75 years old when she completed the book, and died shortly before its publication in 1977. The autobiographical account she offers exemplifies the complex and mutually constitutive interplay between ‘the personal’ and the political. By offering a politicised reading of her own personal life, she shows how this was shaped by wider structures and processes of power, and the intersections of class and gender.

Activity 5

Read through the quotation below. Now read Extract 6, involving an interview with Miss Stewart. Try to answer the following questions:

  • What do these accounts tell us about the interplay between age, class and gender?

  • What kinds of research methods have been used to generate this data?

One London Borough Council ran a sheltered workshop where pensioners packed thousands of contraceptives for a derisory hourly rate. I talked to a voluntary worker who had visited one such workshop, and she confirmed my fears of exploitation when she told me that she had seen a forewoman stop an old lady from talking. If she had allowed them to chat, she explained, others would follow suit instead of getting on with their work.

(Elder, 1977, p. 41)

Extract 6 Miss Stewart

… the headmaster … said I was teacher material. Mum and dad wouldn't sanction it … [s]o I sat the labour exam and left school at 13 … I'd got a friend who was working in the dressmaking trade so I went in along with her and stopped in that all my life from being 14. I worked for one firm from when I was 26 until I finished work …. When I was into my twenties I used to think if I'd gone to be a school teacher I should have been on a good pension. It's not only the money because I liked school, but I suppose – well, perhaps money has something to do with it. (I worked until I was 71). I was on my own. I've never been married, because I looked after mother and dad … I paid [National Insurance] until I was 65, and so got some extra on my pension. But they started to take a lot in tax, and so I thought to myself, well that's that, I'll [retire and] struggle through some way and manage.

(Ford and Sinclair, 1987, pp. 76–8)


The quotation and extract speak to the experiences of being older and working class. Those described by Miss Stewart also give insights into the way that her experiences were inflected by gender difference. However, the accounts speak to this experience in different ways, as their production hinges on different methodological entry points. The approaches both involved the deployment of qualitative methods – observation, interviews – and so offer relatively in-depth and rich insights into the experiences outlined. However, while the interview with the voluntary worker in the shelter workshop offers some insight into the kind of working environment that circumscribes the lives of its older workers, the feelings and experiences of the workers themselves are absent. A greater understanding of the workshop and its practices may have been generated if some of these workers had been interviewed in tandem with the voluntary worker. In contrast, in the case of Miss Stewart , we have access to the voice of a person at first hand – albeit mediated through her interview with a researcher.

Informed by a strong emancipatory tradition, the oral history method aims to give voice to the personal experiences of marginalised and excluded social groups; voices that might otherwise be overshadowed and subsumed within the accounts offered by more powerful social groups like employers and policy-makers (Holden, 2004; Bornat, 2002). Applying a life history approach to the account offered by Miss Stewart helps us to understand features characterising her transition from work to retirement. It enables us to see how her experiences of work and retirement are inextricably linked to earlier moments in her biography – having to leave school at 13, working in a traditionally female and low-paid industry, combining this with care responsibilities for elderly parents. Further, all of these features can be seen as evidencing the way in which her personal life is constituted through difference and inequalities mapped around intersections of class and gender.


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