As we have seen, pensions are both inherently personal and political. Pensions and other social policies are heavily implicated in shaping the way older people experience their personal lives, and the way in which these personal lives have become constructed as ‘other’. Providing a means by which older lives could be ‘divided up’ and divided out of the domain of paid employment, and reconstituted through the arena of public and private welfare, this process is also informed by differences and inequalities of class, (dis)ability, ethnicity, gender and sexuality. Pension reforms implemented by the Conservatives and New Labour in the latter part of the twentieth century and early part of the twenty-first, place the onus of responsibility on individuals to build a financially secure older age. They are therefore consistent with other welfare reforms that emphasised notions of responsibilisation implemented over the same period. Bearing the continuing legacy of the nineteenth-century Poor Law, the extent to which such policy prescriptions can be reconciled with the uncertainties and inequalities that shape the lived reality of employment and retirement is however questionable.
The apparent ‘freeing’ of individuals from the putative fetters of the welfare state has further been articulated through wider, sociological readings of the position of older people in society. These have some resonance with the demands older people make for themselves through pensioner movements and arguments mobilised through the concept of the ‘third age’. So, for example, Giddens has asserted:
Pensioner – the very term sounds incapacitating and in fact designates a dependent person. Welfare systems here define old age, not as a status worthy of respect, but as a disqualification from full membership of society. Ageing is treated as ‘external’, as something that happens to one, not as a phenomenon actively constructed and negotiated … The majority of people over 65 want to do some form of paid work … There simply isn't enough money to go around to continue to finance universal pension schemes … Older people can and should … be regarded as part of the wealth creating sectors of society.
(Giddens, 1994, pp. 170–84)
There are some clear similarities between the reading of older age developed by Giddens and that offered by older people within ‘third age’ and pensioner movements. Both foreground notions of agency to suggest that older age is not an imposed event. Nor is it, they suggest, something that simply happens. Instead both readings conceptualise older age as an experience and identity older people actively shape for themselves. In making this case, deterministic and reductionist explanations of older age – whether based around the dynamics of capitalism or biology – are effectively challenged. Nonetheless, there are a number of important tensions between the two, and these coalesce around the issue of work. Giddens' prescription for a secure personal life and full citizenship in older age turns on privileging a continuity of paid employment and a residual welfare state, as a way out of older age dependency and poverty. In contrast, voices within the pensioner movement emphasise expanding the choices available to older people: choices which, they argue, should include the option to make the transition into retirement and out of the compulsions of paid employment without fear of living their lives in poverty. Further, as the uncertainty and politicisation of pension provision escalates, younger people are adding to these calls, as they anticipate their own older age. In making this case, they are challenging the legacy of the nineteenth-century Poor Law, the work–welfare relation it enshrines, and the shadow of poverty it continues to cast over the personal lives of many older people.