The Guardian view on women and pensions: this generation deserves better
People support state pensions in large part because they expect them to be fair. This is obvious in principle, but fraught in practice. First, governments must guarantee a degree of certainty in a fast-changing world: people work hard for years in the expectation of rewards in old age. Second, complex social relations – between generations, genders and classes – have to be translated into financial payments that are broadly just to all.
The 1995 equalisation of the state pension age addressed the disparity whereby women retired earlier than men despite living longer – as well, of course, as curbing the growing cost of pensions due to increasing life expectancy (it has now stalled). But add in later changes and bureaucratic shortcomings and many women born in the 1950s are now finding they must wait up to six years longer than expected to receive a pension. Campaign groups Backto60 and Women Against State Pension Age Inequality say that women who have worked for decades and stand on the brink of retirement – or, worse still, who took early retirement in the expectation of pending payments – have discovered they are years away from receiving the state pension. Some are staying in exhausting jobs longer than they ever anticipated. Others are unable to find work. They are “desperate, and in some cases destitute”, says one supportive MP – and they are angry enough to march on parliament, as more than a thousand did on Wednesday.
In theory, the 1995 change gave the 3.8 million women affected 25 years’ notice. Many planned accordingly. But, as the Commons work and pensions committee has noted, “more could and should have been done” to communicate the changes. Then, in 2011, the government saved almost £30bn by unfairly speeding up the changes. Women who still believed they would receive the state pension at 60 suddenly received letters telling them they would get it as late as 66. Worse, thousands complain they never received those letters. Thus, changes carried out in the name of equality have had a brutal impact on women born in the 1950s, who saw little equality in their working lives and who in many cases now face the additional and unpaid burdens that fall more often on women, such as caring for ageing relatives or grandchildren.
There are clear lessons here for the future. The first is that, in the words of former pensions minister Ros Altmann, “women have been the poor relation in pensions for a long time”. The second is that any changes in pension provision should be shouted from the rooftops and via targeted communications. Even many women who knew the pension age was rising did not realise they were personally affected.
None of that will help the women left in poverty today. Compensating those worst affected via a transitional scheme is the best way out of this mess. Fairness is not easy to determine in such a complex area of policy. But the injustice done to many of these women is clear, and must be addressed.
Women protesting outside the Houses of Parliament on Wednesday. Photograph: John Stillwell/PA