We all know the ‘baby boomer’ stereotype – dripping in disposable income and relaxing into a rock-solid retirement thanks to golden pension schemes. We also know that for many millions – and for women in particular – this simply isn’t true. In the UK, 37% of women aged between 56 and 64 have no private pension at all. In fact, a recent study found that, when private and state pensions are added together, retired men have 70% more to live on than women.
Angela Madden, chair of the campaign group Women Against State Pension Inequality (WASPI), points to many reasons. ‘This generation of women were discriminated against all their lives,’ she says. Many began work when it was still legal to pay women less. Companies often barred women from their pension schemes, and those that did accept women required them to contribute for five uninterrupted years to stay in it. ‘We are the childbearers and predominantly the childcarers, so we often have an interrupted career path,’ she says. ‘When you became pregnant, jobs didn’t stay open for you. You had to leave.’
The inequalities continue into later life, when a woman’s median annual full-time salary is 23% less than a man’s, according to a study by social enterprise Rest Less. ‘Caring responsibilities for children often extends to parental care in later life, so women are more concentrated in less senior, more flexible roles that also carry less security,’ says Rest Less founder Stewart Lewis. These were the roles hit hardest by the pandemic – jobs in hospitality, retail, leisure and tourism. The pandemic increased the gender gap in pension pots to nearly £200,000 in 2021, according to one survey.
The move to ‘equalise’ state pension provision by delaying women’s state pension age from 60 to 66 in line with men’s has been an added pressure, especially since it was introduced without time for women to plan. Saga Magazine’s Paul Lewis has long been a campaigner for these ‘forgotten’ women; WASPI wants a one-off compensation payment for the most impacted.
Divorced, single and widowed women with no husband to support them struggle most with pension provision and many are having to find creative ways to stay afloat. We meet some…
‘I became a dog walker and boarder’
When former PE teacher, Rhona Mackintosh, 68, from Glasgow, was forced out of her career on health grounds, she turned her love of dogs into a source of income.
‘When I returned to work after taking seven years out to have children, there were few full-time opportunities, so I took short-term contracts as a supply teacher. I didn’t look too closely at how much this impacted my pension. I was married so I assumed I’d be covered by my husband’s pension scheme.
‘At 48, my marriage ended, the divorce settlement took two years and, at the end, my husband stayed in the family home, I took on a new mortgage and signed away any rights to his pension. I continued work as a PE teacher but at 60, a bone scan showed I had osteoporosis in the spine. My employers wouldn’t let me continue as it made me uninsurable. I still had a mortgage, my occupational pension was only 50% of a full one and my state pension didn’t start for another six years. It was indescribably scary.
‘I try not to be angry or resentful and I don’t like to complain, but it’s so different for women’
‘The first thing I did was rent out a room out. I live in a close-knit community, word had got around and someone asked if I could rent a room to a nurse who had a temporary job in a local hospital. In my late fifties, I’d qualified as a sport therapist so I also worked on building up a practice in my house.
‘One day, I was having lunch with friends and one asked if I could look after her dog while she went away. I’ve always had dogs and now have four greyhounds. Hers was a wee dog with a big personality and I wasn’t too sure, but it went really well. As I had more free time, I started going to park meet-ups with other greyhound owners and I’d be asked if I could board someone’s dog or take one for a walk. Business just built, and I’ve been a dog walker and boarder for about seven years now, all by word of mouth. You have to take out insurance and I’m careful about who I take on – I only want nice dogs! – but I love it. It’s quite active, I love the dynamics of the different groupings, all the different dog personalities.
‘I paid off my mortgage three years ago and my state pension has kicked in now but it isn’t a full one and I worry about how I’d cope if I was unable to look after the dogs. My children help me out – I’m not supposed to notice the little amounts that show up in my bank account from them. I try not to be angry and resentful and I don’t like to complain, but it is so different for women.’
‘I trained to be a celebrant’
After retiring, Gill Robertson, 64, from Dunoon, Argyll and Bute, has invested in new ways to boost her pension – most recently qualifying as a funeral celebrant.
‘I was a nurse for 19 years, then an official for the Royal College of Nursing for another 20. As a single mother of twins, I was never able to add additional contributions to my pension scheme. I was 59 and planning to retire at 60 when I realised the women’s state pension age had been put back. I felt a bit of a fool. Why didn’t I know this? I was also gutted. My job was pretty hefty and mentally demanding, working with disputes and grievances. I decided to retire anyway, and although my occupational pension wasn’t desperate – about £1,300 a month in total – it was a huge drop from my salary of £60,000.
‘As a single mother, I was never able to add additional contributions to my pension’
‘My first plan was to supplement it by running Slimming World groups, as I’d lost seven stone with them. You spend £1,500 to be fully trained, then you can start your own groups. I built up three groups – they bring in about £150 a week. It’s quite physical work though, and I don’t always enjoy encouraging people who are not that motivated!
‘I had been to a couple of local funerals where there was a celebrant and I loved listening to them. I have a nursing degree, I’ve done a lot of work in palliative care and supported bereaved families. I loved the idea of being a celebrant, getting stories from families and crafting them into a sermon. I spent £1,000 to train with the Academy of Modern Celebrancy and qualified six weeks ago. I’ve set up my website and I’m talking to the local funeral directors. The beauty of this is that you can work a lot, or a little. I am not sure I want to retire completely – if I sit down, I’ll never get up again!’
‘I run three weekly dance classes’
Genny Jones, 61, from Gravesend, Kent, had several small pension pots but not enough to live on. She’s recently qualified as a dance instructor to add a new income stream.
‘Most of my career has been in bookkeeping – I was a tax officer, then joined an accountancy firm. My children were born 18 months apart, and five years after that, I divorced. Childcare was expensive, so I set up as a freelancer to work around the children and I’ve done that ever since. I had a mortgage to pay, plus school fees. We didn’t go on holidays, and I didn’t have money to pour into a pension. I have a few little pension pots but, when I looked at how much they would give me, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to live on it. I need to work.
‘I still do bookkeeping two days a week, although now I’m more of a teacher, showing people how to do it themselves. I’ve decided to focus on things that are more “me”, things that make me happy. I’m from Sierra Leone and, in my twenties, I used to be in an African dance troupe at weekends, although I stopped when the kids arrived. I discovered that you could get a qualification in African dance, so I started when I was 59. It was hard. I failed the written exam, which was all about the body, three times! I finally qualified last year and now run three weekly classes in Gravesend, which I absolutely love.’
Boost your pension pot
Consolidate. On average, we build 11 different pensions over a lifetime. To find lost pension pots, use the government’s free Pension Tracing Service at gov.uk or call 0800 731 0193.
Consider deferring your pension, or perhaps a spouse can pay into it. If you’re not on track for a full state pension, you can make top-ups to your National Insurance record relatively cheaply. For free advice, call the pension advisory service on 0800 011 3797 or go to moneyhelper.org.uk.
Can your house make money for you? Take in a lodger perhaps weekdays (spareroom.co.uk, mondaytofriday.com). Look into renting to foreign students; ask at your local university or language school. Can you rent a parking space (parklet.co.uk) or storage space if you have a garage (spareground.co.uk)?
Tutoring. If you have a skill, play an instrument or speak a foreign language, consider tutoring, or qualify to teach English to foreign students with TEFL.
Pet sitting. If you like animals, this can be a lucrative sideline (uk.catinaflat.com).
Be an entrepreneur. Businesses set up by over-50s are less likely to fail than those set up by younger people. Visit startups.co.uk.
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