The writer is a financial commentator
The pandemic has thrown into sharp relief the income and pension inequality women experience. Covid-19 kills more men than women, but the latter have taken a bigger economic hit. They have been more likely to be furloughed, and more likely to lose their jobs. They have taken on a disproportionate share of household tasks, childcare and home schooling. And the pandemic has worsened job prospects for older people, especially women.
Even without coronavirus, the UK economy relies on unpaid care, mostly by family and friends, both men and women. The charity Carers UK says that 14 per cent of the country’s population are informal carers. Of these, the majority — 58 per cent — are women and their peak age is 50-64. Some give up well-paid jobs to care for relatives full-time, while others juggle caring with unskilled, poorly paid work.
Carers’ income is pitiful: carers’ allowance pays £67.25 a week for those who provide more than 35 hours a week, far less than even universal credit, let alone the living wage for full-time work. So although carers receive national insurance credits, they are unable to build up the occupational pensions essential for a comfortable retirement. All too often, becoming a carer means the premature end of a woman’s well-paid career; for many, it means poverty in old age.
The UK government aims to keep younger women in the workforce by providing childcare. But there is no recognition of the need to keep older women in work through care for the elderly. Indeed, some proposals to “solve” the social care crisis envisage women taking on even more. A recent pamphlet from the think-tank Demos proposes that “families” should be primarily responsible for elderly care, and suggests that this could be a “career choice”. And, as the pandemic has shown, with demand for care at home growing, the greater burden has fallen on women.
Even before Covid-19, older women experienced obstacles to work. A 2016 study for ITV found that many give up work prematurely because of unsympathetic attitudes towards menopause symptoms. Older women also experience social pressure to leave the workforce to care for relatives.
The story of the Spinster’s Association’s campaign to lower women’s pension age has lessons for today. The deaths of young men in the first world war resulted in many young women missing out on marriage. By the late 1930s, these “spinsters” were in their 40s and facing a bleak future.
Working spinsters were likely to lose their jobs long before their (then) state pension age of 65 — employers believed women over 55 were too frail for productive work. Others cared for parents until they died, then were thrown into a jobs market that systematically discriminated against them. Unable to find work, many had no income and no means of making the insurance contributions needed to qualify for a state pension. Many became destitute.
To ease their plight, the Spinsters’ Association called for women’s state pension age to be cut to 55. That was rejected in 1938, but in 1940 it was lowered to 60. Employment of women has risen hugely since then and many now work well into their 60s. Because of increased life expectancy, their pension age is now 66, in line with men’s, and both are due to rise to 67 by 2028.
Caring for relatives is a loving duty, not a “career choice”. But proposals to solve social care cannot rely on families doing it for free. We need a better solution — and not that of 1940; women don’t need to be pensioned off at 55 or 60.
If society wants women to choose to be carers, it must recognise their valuable work. Instead of giving “benefits”, pay them a living wage and occupational pension. And when their time as carers ends, don’t throw them on the scrap heap. Give them the help they need to restart their stalled careers.
No one should end up in poverty in old age because they chose to care.