You know you’re getting older when you start receiving invitations to retirement parties.
I had one the other week. I didn’t go. It was held by an acquaintance who has worked diligently in the public sector, rising through the ranks to senior executive level. She’s a year or two older than me – early 50s – and she’s already left the corner office, taking her juicy pension pot with her, her own contributions supplemented by taxpayers’ cash, obviously.
This “celebration” stuck in my throat actually. I know this world is unfair. But in it, nothing is much more unfair than pensions. Some of us will start winding down in our late 40s, and some of us will be slaving even into our 70s.
We live in a nation already divided. When I look ahead, I see another yawning chasm opening up; retirees who played their cards right and gold-plated their later years, and the rest of us. And I say this as an individual who actually has a bit of a private pension put away. It’s a mixture from my lucrative days in a newspaper staff job and also from my former part-time post teaching in a university. I could take it in five years, when I’m 55, but unless I can hang my annuity from that magic money tree the Prime Minister keeps talking about, the funds available won’t last me until I’m 60. I’ll just keep typing then.
I’ll contrast my high-flying acquaintance to another lady I know, in her 60s. She worked as a high-level lecturer in a university until the misogyny and demands of hundreds of students finally made her admit enough was enough. She’s now self-employed, running a marketing business. It’s not easy, the constant hunt for work, chasing clients who don’t want to pay, but she can’t take her teacher’s pension yet, so she has no choice.
My marketing friend actually considers herself lucky. Although a touch of arthritis plagues her typing fingers, like me, at least she can do her job sitting down and in the relative warmth of her own home. She points out that life would be a lot harder if she was serving in a shop, working on a hospital ward or dishing out school dinners.
That’s why the Government’s decision to raise the state pension age to 68 is so terrifying. Pensions are already deeply unfair and depend so much on decisions you take when you’re not old enough to even consider the consequences. Some people, like my high-level public sector acquaintance, are steely enough to plan ahead at any cost. Most of us aren’t.
And it’s impossible to make plans when the Government keeps moving the goalposts further and further towards the horizon. You’ll notice that this latest announcement was slipped out whilst the nation was incensing itself over how much the BBC is prepared to pay its “talent”, and just before the House of Commons breaks up for the summer recess. No time for considered debate.
In the Government’s world of White Papers and orderly choices, it might be feasible to instruct our children to think about retirement before they even pass their driving test.
In the real world though, with all its unexpected events, bills to pay and student debts and mortgages to settle, it’s just not always possible. What galls me in particular are the official campaigns which urge us to save more for our retirement, when for millions, just reaching the end of the working week with enough money left to buy a pint of milk is an achievement.
I’m not putting a special case for women, I just happen to be one. It’s true that raising the pension age discriminates most harshly against manual workers. And most manual workers tend to be men, whose bodies end up suffering the toll of digging roads or building houses or any number of trades.
My dad, who worked in the steel industry, took his own retirement at 55. And this was justified. He’d given 40 years of his life to working long, arduous shifts, lost half a finger and crushed his foot in the course of his duties and to be honest, he deserved a rest. However, he did find a job as a handyman after he waved his final goodbye to Stocksbridge, simply because he liked working.
I will say in defence of my sex that in general we tend to earn less than men in the first place so any contributory pension scheme will suffer the consequences. Just ask any of the female BBC presenters who have discovered that they’re doing the same work as Chris Evans or John Humphrys for half the pay packet.
Women also take time off to do the vital job of raising children and shoulder other caring responsibilities much more frequently than their husbands and partners. This impacts on our earning potential, our employability status and of course, our pension contributions.
We are expected to make ourselves equal in all ways, now even working until we are almost 70, yet we are not treated equally by any kind of system. And then the NHS wonders why so many middle-aged women are being treated for serious stress-related illnesses and disease.