Dr Tom Emery, a Social Researcher at the Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute, says that we need new thinking and policies to acknowledge the increasing burdens on older generations – especially for women – as the retirement age shifts upwards
Intergenerational Justice can’t just be about taking from baby boomers and giving to their kids. It is far more complicated than that. If intergenerational justice is to be achieved, policies need to accommodate the different roles that generations play within society.
Baby boomer women in particular need policies that help them deliver their side of the bargain for intergenerational justice.
The many responsibilities of boomer women
These women are now (rightly) being asked to work longer, and by 2020 their state pension age will be 66, the same as men. But female employment for the over 50s remains stubbornly low and to understand why you only have to look at when and why women retire. The biggest factor is that their parents start to require more and more intensive support and care or that they need to look after their grandchildren so that their children can go to work themselves.
Boomer women, who are now aged 50–70, are in the sandwich years of life where you have to look after the oldest and youngest family members simultaneously. On top of this, we have just asked them to work longer. If we want them to work longer, then policies have to help them make this a reality. It is time that paid grandparental leave and carers’ leave were put higher up the policy agenda and given the attention they deserve.
This shouldn’t be limited to women either, as supporting men’s role in caring for elderly relatives and grandchildren could help relieve some of the burden that leads women to dropping out of work so early.
It might seem strange to suggest that more rights and entitlements for the baby boomer generation could increase intergenerational equality, but it is necessary to think about this in addressing how we can make increased retirement ages work in practice. My research focuses on “The Bank of Mum & Dad” and how much parents help their kids financially. The results show that when even just one of the parents retires, the bank shuts up shop and younger generations are far less likely to receive help. So if we can make it easier for parents to work longer it could also help them support their own children for longer.
Reconciling work and care for baby boomers
Similarly, by providing paid childcare leave to grandparents we could encourage women to stay in the labour market for longer to the benefit of everyone. When my own boomer mother first became a grandmother she was frustrated most by the realisation that her grandson would be in secondary school by the time she reached state pension age. Flexible, paid grandparental leave of just 1–2 weeks per year would make the prospect of working for another decade a whole lot more attractive and she would be less inclined to feel like she was missing out on a unique time in life. I’m sure my sister would not mind the additional help either, as it can be difficult to combine being a mum with a career.
Boomer women are also amongst the most likely age groups to be providing care to older people (second only to those who are very old themselves). Given the enormous strain the care system is under, policies need to be put in place that let people simultaneously care for their ageing parents and work to the state pension age that we have set. The care provided by relatives is often functional help with regular tasks such as shopping, help with hospital visits or help with general household tasks. If we want people to work to 68 (as the state pension age will be after 2046) and continue to provide this invaluable support, we have to recognise this dual role. One example of how to do this would be to recognise people’s care roles in the pension system. If someone reduces their working hours to help an elderly relative, our state pension system could recognise that as the time-consuming role that it is.
Policies are needed now, not tomorrow
This policy issue has received some attention but nowhere near enough. Baby boomers are contemplating retirement as we speak. Currently just half of women aged 55–64 are still working and that needs to be much higher if our pension systems are to become sustainable and intergenerational justice achieved.
Policies are needed today if we want to convince the other 50% that staying in work till they are 68 is actually feasible and desirable. Raising the retirement age is a great idea and will help intergenerational justice immeasurably. But we can’t just do this blindly and ignore why people take early retirement in the first place. Just as with raising female employment levels 20 to 30 years ago, we have to put policies in place that make this feasible, as we are now asking older generations to be grandparents, carers and workers all at once.