Julie Nicholson is one of the many women who, upon reaching 60, realised that she would not be receiving the state pension she had formerly been entitled to. She has since campaigned against state pension inequality. Discussing the impact that this has had on her and other women in her position, she explains that the issue is far more complex and far-reaching than meets the eye.
“I became aware of the changes to state pensions for women in 2011 because my husband expected to retire in 2016 and he was checking paperwork for himself,” she says.
“I got my pension forecast and it told me my pension age would be 65 and I’d need 30 qualifying years. Then, in 2013, I got another letter which said that had now changed to 66 and I’d need 35 qualifying years. When I checked the Government Gateway again in 2018 it showed I was missing years from 2012 to 2017 and that I could “voluntarily” pay over £700 to buy these years. I would not pay anything into a fund that will not pay me my pension now, and why do I need more “full” years? You can apply for specified adult childcare credits, which is applicable to my situation, but I found out about that online. I wasn’t told.
“I have now been credited my missing years by HMRC, and currently have 41 years of full contributions, 6 years still to contribute and 3 years which were short. The government keep blaming women and saying we knew, but how do you keep track of this? People aren’t sufficiently informed and it’s not their fault.”
As may be expected, a common response to the opposition to state pension inequality is that women should just stay in work for a few more years. The mere suggestion provokes a bitter laugh from Julie. “I’ve applied for jobs,” she explains, “but I get nothing back.
“The government suggested that women over 60 get apprenticeships – well, who would give someone our age an apprenticeship? It’s insulting. Most 1950s-born ladies started work at 15 (the school leaving age until 1972), opportunities for further education were extremely limited for these girls who were expected to work, or marry, take care of the family and work part time – that’s how it was in the 60s, 70s and 80s.”
There are practical issues involved, too. “Lots of older people struggle to find employment, whether that’s because of prejudice or because they can’t access the internet to search for jobs and complete applications, many of which are lengthy documents containing questions which seem irrelevant to the position in question. They’re offered no support in this, but expected to just be able to do it and blamed for their difficulties if they can’t. Women hit menopause and the body changes, and however much the government want to tell you otherwise, you simply don’t have the energy that you used to. I’m fit, I walk everywhere, but by the evening I’m always exhausted.”
Like many other women in her position, Julie also protests the lack of acknowledgement of the vital unpaid labour that many women provide. “I feel that working women, throughout their lives, whether full time or part time, always have two jobs,” she says, “and the unpaid jobs are huge, and don’t stop in the evening or at the weekend.
“The argument that raising women’s pension age promotes equality is ridiculous. In society, women are still pressured to take on more domestic work, which takes up their time and for which they’re not paid and which is not recognised. That’s particularly true of older women, but it will affect women in the future, too. Women still have the larger proportion of responsibilities at home.
“Equalisation of the state pension age was never about bringing us equality. It was a massive savings technique.”
Receiving a state pension at 60 would also aid the provision of childcare, Julie argues: “If women with grandchildren had their pensions at 60, as they were promised, and didn’t have to worry about income for themselves, they could offer this. My pension would make a massive difference to my wellbeing and to our family unit.”
This is far from the only area affected by state pension inequality, though – as Julie has seen and experienced herself, its effects stretch into every area of life.
“Pension credit links into many other things, rebates on council tax for instance, but it’s means tested. The government are now putting in place legislation whereby Pension Credit is gradually being replaced by Universal Credit. The information states: you'll be affected if your partner is under pension credit age, and you're over pension credit age, so the husbands of women between 60 and 66 also won’t be able to benefit from it anymore. My husband will be 72 by the time I get my pension. We have to have some money stowed away in case the roof falls in or the heating packs up, and for funeral costs in case one of us passes away.”
This, she says, can cause tension in families and relationships. “My husband’s state pension age was in 2016, he worked part-time until this year, fully retiring at 67, after 52 years in a job that kept him on his feet all day and physical in nature, resulting in two replacement knees, and he needed to keep going. Had I received my pension in 2017, we would not even have been faced with the question of whether he should continue after his 65th birthday. These are the questions many couples are faced with after believing at the outset that for us it would be retirement and pension at 65 and 60. That time has been stolen. Not a few days or a few months, but years – stolen.”
She also feels that the potential solutions to many social and financial issues proposed by politicians could also be aided by restoring state pensions for women at 60. Last week, for instance, Conservative Surrey County Council Leader, David Hodge, suggested those entitled to a bus pass in Surrey should buy them under a scheme similar to the railcard one .
“There are many people who can’t afford to and many over 60s who now cannot have one because Surrey choose to align bus pass qualification with state pension age. Apart from London, England is the only part of the UK where over-sixties don’t automatically qualify for a pass.”
The issue reaches further than local authorities, though – “Theresa May said they’d hand over £20million for loneliness, but a lot of women over 60 can’t afford to go out, and that contributes to loneliness. She’s looking at the symptom but not the cause, and this money may well get lost in the administrative costs of sorting the grants, with no money ever filtering through to the genuine lonely in communities.
“Wealthy politicians don’t understand what it’s like and they’re not interested. They treat people as if it’s their fault they’re losing out. There are MPs who are passionate, but the reality is that there’s not enough provision for us in any of the parties’ manifestos. The current Conservative government will not revisit the issue, but they need to look at the effect that the decision that was made in 1995 is having now and the ripples of that. They say the country can’t afford the payments, but they do find money. How much money has been spent on us going to war? How much money do government departments waste on outsourcing to companies to waste it for them, or on saving financial institutions?”
But Julie does not solely blame the Tories. “Labour have an opportunity to also revisit this issue. Jeremy Corbyn is aware of our situation, but the Party haven’t offered any solutions apart from transitional proposals, changing women’s state pension age to 63, which isn’t good enough. Women have already lost so much of what they were promised – the average is said to be around £48,000. If I had my pension, I would happily give back to society in terms of volunteering, but I won’t now. I can’t afford to. I would like to see all parties revisit this issue and take into account how things have changed and how our loss can cause loneliness and depression and affect our families. Women play a pivotal role providing for the future generations. We’re not liabilities.”
For some, the situation is particularly dire. Indeed, there has been a huge rise in people over 60 becoming homeless. Julie laments, “It can’t be right. I read about ladies that are poorly that have to go through Fit for Work assessments. It’s dehumanising. It’s cruel. Research now suggests that longevity is falling, and homelessness for over-60s will certainly be a killer, so the arguments for increasing the state pension age are now becoming empty.
“Losing your pension creates an enormous ripple that affects so many aspects of your life. For me, having my pension would make a big difference to things like budgeting and house maintenance and bills. So many women’s expectations are totally zero now. They’ve been squashed. Women have become suicidal over this because they have no hope. I’ve never really been involved in politics, I’ve lived my life, toed the line, paid my taxes and national insurance, worked around family commitments, while providing for my loved ones, and for what? Where has that left me? Where has that left other women?
“People refer to state pension as a benefit, but really it’s an entitlement. They’ve changed the terminology to villainise people for wanting what they were promised.”
Whose attention, though, do these women want the most? For Julie, hope lies with the younger generations. “When young people lend their voice to a cause, it makes a difference,” she says.
“Politicians and the media try to create conflict between the generations – we need to resist that and support one another. There are many young people whose mothers, aunties, grandmothers are in this situation, and this could well affect younger generations, too. Young people don’t know what will happen to their own pensions – what if NEST goes the way of Carillion?”
Asked what people can do to support the fight against state pension inequality, Julie said, quite simply, that she wants people “to listen, to try to understand and to talk about these issues, because the likelihood is that there are still ladies approaching 60 who are unaware of the changes, and for young people to think about how many years future governments have to break promises made to them now. There are 3,600,000 women affected by this broken promise, and millions more relatives who are affected as a result. This is a national issue. This is a national crisis. It needs to be treated as such.”
More information about state pension inequality can be found on the BackTo60, We Paid In, You Pay Out and WASPI websites.