I’ve often spoken about young people and unemployment. But, for some time, I’ve also worried about the chances of older women in Britain. The generation of women born just after the war have faced significant challenges throughout their lives. In childhood, their education was designed for a world where few women worked, yet they have lived in a world where women have joined the workforce. In their early careers, they fought and fought again for equal pay, which my generation benefitted from. In the eighties, Thatcherism saw women’s equality as meaning increasing women’s pension age, rather than putting women in the cabinet, or helping the average working woman find childcare.
Politically, theirs was the generation that fought and won the freedoms I have enjoyed: reproductive rights, childcare, and even the all-women shortlist that saw my selection. This generation has changed the world, yet has itself benefitted from few of these advances. Now, to make matters worse, the government has moved back the retirement age for these women, and they face another wave of redundancies in the public sector, which will undoubtedly hit this same generation of working women.
In the Commons last month, a government minister told me, ‘we should both celebrate the fact that employment figures are up for every age group, locally, nationally and regionally’. But is this really true? Granted, unemployment fell by 0.2 per cent between August and October of this year (mainly as a result of an increase in part-time jobs). Yet what Tory rhetoric fails to acknowledge is this: since taking power in May 2010, there has been a 31 per cent increase in the number of unemployed women over-50. I can’t see the reasons to celebrate.
So, with only 60 per cent of Britain’s 11.3 million older women in work, is it any wonder that the UK has dropped from 10th to 15th in the OECD’s most recent rankings for employment among older people? Or is it any surprise that more than 70 per cent of women aged 50 and above feel there are too few employment opportunities for them under the Tory-led government? It is absurd that we can neglect the untapped wealth of experience which so many mothers, aunties and grandmothers have accumulated during their lifetimes. Yet despite this, nearly 44 per cent of women aged 50-64 are either unemployed or economically inactive.
This is not merely an issue of government neglect, however, but of real discrimination against a group who fought so passionately for gender equality. Those who experienced the job market prior to the 1975 introduction of equal wage legislation will clearly remember a time in which women were under-employed, under-paid and, most importantly, under-valued in our society. They fought for a protection which women of my generation now enjoy. That makes it all the more essential that we fight now for older women’s rights to well-paid employment.
With 270,000 jobs cut from the public sector in the last year alone, the prospects for working women, two thirds of whom are employed in this sector, appears increasingly bleak. Therefore, when taking into account the figures that one in five female pensioners currently lives in poverty, is it not apparent that safeguarding the long-term financial stability of Britain’s over-50s is of paramount importance? Paired with the fact that nearly 70 per cent of all councils have been forced to cut or freeze services for the elderly; it is clear that British older women are at risk of getting lost in the chaos that is ‘big society’.
I am very proud that the Labour party has set up a commission on this very issue. The establishment of the Older Women’s Commission, the first meeting of which took place this week, indicates a genuine commitment to the active inclusion of over-50s females in the policy-making process and I look forward to reading its findings. Ministers’ comments on this issue demonstrate a total lack of understanding for the realities facing older women as they struggle to keep or find a job and betray a worrying complacency to the impact of their policies. Of course, none of this should be a surprise – we see a very similar lack of interest for the young unemployed – older women are simply another group who are classified as ‘too hard’ for ministers to seek to understand. Without specific and transformative policies to support older women in work, we risk future decades where the historic advances in reducing pensioner poverty are undermined by unemployment and underemployment in the years leading up to retirement. It will fall to Labour to create and deliver those policies.
Alison McGovern is the Labour MP for Wirral South
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