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

4.2 Moving towards greater equality in older age? Old Labour, pension reform and the continuity of age-based labour market discrimination and exit

The mid 1970s heralded a period in which the Labour Government introduced a series of reforms in the pension arena that potentially promised a more secure retirement for older, working-class people. Stripping away some of the patriarchal assumptions that had informed the Beveridgean settlement, the 1975 Social Security Pensions Act promised particular benefits for women and other low-paid workers. For example, the dual aspects of many women's lives – involving both unpaid and paid work – were explicitly acknowledged through the introduction of Home Responsibilities Protection (HRP) in the BSP. This meant that women whose contribution records had been interrupted due to unpaid care responsibilities would still qualify for the BSP as long as they had paid contributions for at least twenty years, as opposed to the previous full working lifetime requirement of 39 years. Married women's entitlement to make reduced National Insurance contributions when in employment was also abolished. As the personal account below indicates, opting out of the BSP had meant that, for some women, ‘retirement’ marked their continuing involvement in low-paid and exploitative forms of employment, rather than a break from it.

I was married and had five children. I worked all my life, domestic, hospital cook, mother's help, foster mum etc. but because my [NI] stamps weren't paid in full I get £51 per week with my ex-husband's insurance to help. I cannot live on this as my common-law husband does not keep me … I have four jobs: cleaning.

(quoted in Ginn et al., 2001, p. 96)

This, together with the abolition of the half-test referred to above in Section 3.3, promised to equalise women's state pension entitlements. Labour also linked the level of the BSP to inflation or average pay. This provided the basis for the pension to increase to its highest level – equivalent to 20 per cent of average male earnings – since its introduction: a level still less than half that of equivalent pensions in France and Germany (Blackburn, 2002, p.67). At the same time the continuity of the derived benefit principle, which makes pensions and other benefits entitlements contingent on marriage, then and now, perpetuates a series of anomolies and inequalities. For example, in a period when marriage and motherhood are becoming increasingly disconnected, cohabiting women are excluded from the rights that married women have to derived state pensions (Ginn et al., 2001, p. 46). Further, because marriage institutionalises a specific form of sexuality (Carabine, 2004), derived pension benefits based around this not only exclude heterosexual cohabitees but also exclude gay, lesbian and transgender couples.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the disengagement of older workers from the labour market escalated (Walker, 1991; Phillipson, 1998). A number of factors informed this trend. The contraction of industries employing older workers represented one factor, as did the growth of unemployment. The latter feature triggered government action that actively promoted the process. For example, in 1977 the Job Release Scheme was introduced in order to combat the unemployment of younger workers by encouraging women aged 59 years and over and men aged 64 years and over to leave their jobs.

Reinforcing the constitution of older people as ‘other’ and dependent, the exclusion of older people from, and their marginalisation within, the domain of paid employment, has spawned a series of studies over the last twenty years. These combined to inform the development of a structured theory of dependency (Walker, 1991). This theory has dominated the way in which the lives of older people have been explained from the late 1970s. Involving a blend of Marxist and social reformist forms of analysis, intersections of social inequalities and older age are explained in terms of the twin effects of minimal levels of state welfare pension support and labour market discrimination and exclusion. Further, changes in the domain of paid employment involving the growth of ‘non-standard’, part-time and other forms of ‘flexible’ working constituted a multiplicity of different ‘work-endings’ and retirement pathways, as Phillipson's (1998, p. 62) review of research in the area demonstrates. Drawing on a series of different studies, conducted from the 1980s onwards, he identified the following pathways:

  • forced early retirement

  • voluntary early retirement

  • redundancy

  • (dis)ability/long-term sickness

  • informal care

  • unemployment

  • discouraged worker

  • state retirement.


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