No pen­sion, no job: a spe­cial dystopia for older women

The Guardian - Journal - - Front page - Gaby Hinsliff,

Emile Ratel­band wants to be younger. He wouldn’t be the first 69-year-old man to say so but what makes Ratel­band un­usual, to put it mildly, is that he has just launched a law­suit in the Nether­lands de­mand­ing to be legally recog­nised as only 49. If a trans woman can iden­tify as fe­male and change her of­fi­cial doc­u­ments ac­cord­ingly, he ar­gues, why can’t he change his reg­is­tered date of birth and thus get more dates on Tin­der? Af­ter all, his doc­tor says he’s very fit for his age, and if he could only claim to be un­der 50 then surely “with this face I will be in a lux­u­ri­ous po­si­tion” with women.

This makes sig­nif­i­cantly more sense as a PR stunt, ob­vi­ously, than as any sort of ar­gu­ment. Age is not a mu­ta­ble fact or a so­cial con­struct, and “age dys­pho­ria” is – un­like its gen­der vari­ant – not even re­motely a thing. You’re born when you’re born and if other peo­ple make madly un­fair as­sump­tions based on some­thing as ar­bi­trary as a date then it’s the as­sump­tions that need chang­ing, not birth records. And un­less he’s ar­gu­ing that only as a born-again fortysome­thing could he fi­nally get women in their 60s to look twice at him, then Ratel­band him­self seems guilty of some pretty dodgy as­sump­tions about age. Older women, so of­ten spurned on dat­ing apps by vain old goats who stub­bornly refuse to “set­tle” for some­one their own age, may not shed too many tears over this one.

But in a pro­fes­sional con­text, at least, you can see his point. Ratel­band is de­scribed as a mo­ti­va­tional speaker and me­dia per­son­al­ity – jobs as­so­ci­ated with al­most bump­tious lev­els of vigour and en­ergy. If he knocked a cou­ple of decades off and used an old photo, he might well get more work. Peo­ple make blithe as­sump­tions about a man over 60 – bit past it, set in his ways, no longer am­bi­tious but just hang­ing in there for the pen­sion – that they wouldn’t dare make about a younger one. Al­though ar­guably they make even more such as­sump­tions about a woman.

As the equal­i­ties se­lect com­mit­tee put it in a re­port on ageism last year, older men have it tough enough at work but older women “face prej­u­dice that older men do not”. Women stop be­ing con­sid­ered for pro­mo­tion around the age of 45, men a decade later, ac­cord­ing to a re­port by the for­mer pen­sions min­is­ter Ros Alt­mann. Fe­male earn­ings peak on aver­age at 40, men’s a good five years later. Both sex­u­ally and pro­fes­sion­ally, women are deemed to go “off the boil” ear­lier than men for some weird rea­son, which may re­flect some em­ploy­ers’ pref­er­ence for at­trac­tive young things around the place or sim­ply the fact that his­tor­i­cally women have re­tired ear­lier. The rage of the Waspi (Women Against State Pen­sion In­equal­ity) mem­bers – the gen­er­a­tion born in the 1950s and 1960s who didn’t re­alise un­til too late that the govern­ment had de­ferred their state pen­sion age – stems partly from the ageism that ham­pers their ef­forts to work for longer. How can they be too young to stop work­ing, in the eyes of govern­ment, but still too old to hire for em­ploy­ers who haven’t caught up with the change?

No­body wants to think about all this un­til it’s star­ing them in the face, ob­vi­ously. When Woman’s Hour did an item on this week’s equal­i­sa­tion of the state pen­sion age for men and women, the host, Jane Gar­vey, ad­mit­ted that the younger women on the pro­duc­tion team had groaned when the whole thing was sug­gested. But in some ways those are pre­cisely the women who should be think­ing about it be­cause the shift in re­tire­ment age has far-reach­ing con­se­quences for their ca­reers.

Un­like the Waspi women, many of whom had long spells out of the work­place to bring up their chil­dren and so didn’t pay enough na­tional in­sur­ance to qual­ify for the ba­sic state pen­sion, younger women are not a stay-at-home gen­er­a­tion. Dif­fi­cult as that can make the jug­gling years when their chil­dren are small, the pay­off for it comes later in the shape of a poverty trap avoided. But many women still need to join the dots be­tween what hap­pens to them in work­ing life and prospects in re­tire­ment. As the BBC’s China edi­tor Car­rie Gra­cie put it when she brought her equal pay claim, she’ll be feel­ing the dif­fer­ence be­tween her­self and male col­leagues long af­ter she’s re­tired; even a rel­a­tively small gen­der pay gap builds up over the years into a sur­pris­ingly big sav­ings gap in old age.

The big­gest change cre­ated by all of us now work­ing un­til we’re 68, how­ever, will be chal­leng­ing as­sump­tions about sell-by dates. Which is why I’m oddly heart­ened by the Spice Girls’ chutz­pah in hus­tling for yet an­other re­union tour (mi­nus Vic­to­ria Beck­ham, for rea­sons pre­sum­ably not un­re­lated to be­ing part of an en­tirely sep­a­rate mul­ti­mil­lion-pound fam­ily brand now).

Much ink has been spilled won­der­ing why four women in their 40s – in pop terms prac­ti­cally dead, al­though still re­spectably youth­ful in any sane pro­fes­sion – are drag­ging them­selves back out there to recre­ate the pho­to­shoots of their 20s, but the bleed­ing ob­vi­ous rea­son is for the money. And frankly if the grand old men of rock and pop are still flog­ging their back cat­a­logues to death, why shouldn’t the Spices be gig­ging into their 60s, like Mick Jag­ger only in heels? Any­thing to push the bound­aries.

And one can’t help won­der­ing if that’s re­ally what Ratel­band is do­ing. He must know, surely, that this law­suit is doomed. But if the real point was to whip up dol­lops of ca­reer-boost­ing free pub­lic­ity, while mak­ing peo­ple think harder about their ca­sual as­sump­tions – well, then it would have paid off in spades. Who says old dogs have no new tricks?

If the grand old men of rock are still flog­ging their songs to death, why shouldn’t the Spice Girls be gig­ging into their 60s?

PHO­TO­GRAPH: MARTIN GOD­WIN/GUARDIAN

A Lon­don rally against the rais­ing of the pen­sion age

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