Illustration: Eleanor Shakespeare
Illustration: Eleanor Shakespeare


Pensions might be scary, but they could be women’s most powerful weapon

When the future looks so unclear, we should remember that economic independence is a woman’s first defence, says Marisa Bate

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By Marisa Bate on

It is rather fitting that next to me in the cafe where I’m sat writing about women and pensions is a group of white-haired women in their seventies and eighties. They’re shooting the breeze over pots of tea. “Edna is so devil-may-care!” says one opposite the other, with metallic purple nails holding a flip phone. Like a slightly more mature Carrie and co, minus the cocktails, they burst into a round of giggles as one announces she’s off to find out if she’s for “the scrap heap”.

It’s hard to know what being a pensioner will look like by the time I get there. And I try not to think about it too much, if I’m honest. We know we’ll all be living longer, although we’re not actually getting any healthier, warn the experts. We know we have a social-welfare infrastructure that is buckling as we speak, let alone in 40 or 50 years. We know, in part thanks to the work of the Jo Cox Commission, that we’re lonelier than ever. And if you couple this with the economic climate, the picture is as bleak as a Monday morning in January. Millennials can’t afford to save; they can’t invest in assets like property that could double up as financial security; and personal debt is mounting. And just to add insult to injury, the pension gender gap is widening. Women are retiring on average with 40 per cent less than men, according to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), which shouldn’t be that surprising – we’re still paid less and take more part-time, lower-skilled roles. Looking at my mum and trying to have what she has – the baby boomer with the civil-servant pension and a house – feels as achievable as owning a condo in Malibu.

I have never been very good at saving. Mostly because my career began post-2008, I work in the media and I’ve always lived in London – a perfect recipe for life in an overdraft. But, in recent years, I’ve really started to regret this. Once, someone bought me a copy of Ms. magazine from the 1970s. On the back of the issue, the magazine was advertising its own savings scheme because, as Gloria Steinem advocated, a woman’s first defence is economic independence. Yet, this evaded me. I’ve always got by on my own, but I’ve only ever considered “getting by” at that moment in time – that week, that rent payment, that electricity bill. There hasn’t been the financially ability nor the long-term outlook (maybe personal, maybe my Insta-generation) to think about “getting by” in The Future. I’m currently putting a teeny-tiny amount into a savings account, but that’s more of a rent safety net than a retirement property in northern Italy. In 2016 – warning, you may need to sit down – the FT published one economist's forecast that suggested you’d need to save £800 a month, for 40 years, to have a pension of £30,000.

Of course, it can feel helpless. Why save for something that won’t be enough in the end, anyway?

I don’t think I’m alone in my contradictory worrying about pensions yet refusing to look at the issue head-on. A spokesman for the DWP told me that a quarter of women “don’t understand their pension information”, and one in 10 “actively avoids checking their pension pot”. I asked my friends how they feel. Jamie, 30, who works in fashion, told me: “I’ve never had a personal pension and, to be honest, have totally ignored the whole thing until I turned 30 and suddenly realised that unless I want to work for the rest of my life, I better sort something.” Remi, a project manager, told me a similar thing: “Last month, I made the effort to actually address the amount of money I was putting into my pension because, finally, at 34, I’ve realised that I'm going to have no money when I’m old and I’m terrified.” Other friends, however, have been more savvy. “I just always knew it was smart,” 32-year-old Hannah, who works in the arts, told me. “I think because my parents were always teachers and always paid in. And they now have a comfortable life as a result.” Amelia, who lives in Birmingham and works as a graphic designer, told me she puts £200 a month into her pension – and the government gives her a tax break on it. Both Jamie and Remi nod to lack of education about why they haven’t saved more. “We were never given any info,” says Remi. “An ad on TV with a cuddly big monster telling us that we will have to op out, instead of in, isn’t enough.”

And they have a point. We know that, traditionally, maths and economics have been subjects for boys, with girls and female students increasingly discouraged from the topics as they’ve got older (the number of females studying these subjects falls off with alarming regularity). This isn’t an issue of “poor helpless women not having a maths brain” – this is a form of cultural and educational sexism that has divorced women from knowledge about money as a method of power. And, for Hannah, it’s changing the way she lives now: “I’m less convinced now about our generation’s hopes for a healthy pension, which is why I’m trying to make the most of life now.”

The DWP encourages women, in particular, to remember National Insurance credits if you take time out of work to look after children, as well as remembering to chase up pensions perhaps forgotten with old jobs. But I wonder if the gender pension gap can only be closed if there is a cultural shift, too. Girls and young women have been discouraged from studying economics, but encouraged to marry men who will probably earn more than them and therefore buy the house or have the big pension. Economic stability has historically fallen to men. In our modernising world, we mustn't leave pensions in the 20th century with traditional gender roles. We must take responsibility – not consciously, or subconsciously, assume that a man, somewhere along the line, will save us.  

Of course, it can feel helpless. Why save for something that won’t be enough in the end, anyway? I think our “retirement” will look so different from our parents’ there’s little point trying to emulate it. Maybe we will work and rent for longer, but maybe that’s OK. Economic independence is the best any woman can hope for in 2018, for so many reasons; now, and when planning for the future – particularly one that seems so unclear.


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Illustration: Eleanor Shakespeare
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