In Poland the debate over raising the statutory retirement age continues to rage. In other countries pension reforms have also become a regular part of economic policy changes in the last couple of years. We live longer today than people did in the first half of the 20th century when most state-funded, old age financial security systems were implemented and this partially explains the need for these reforms. In addition though, state coffers are not as full as they were before the global economic meltdown and for years populations in many parts of the world have not been replacing themselves to insure a large enough working population to pay for a bloated aging population, the result of post-war baby booms. Social benefit reforms like this are third rail politics, regardless of the populace but what I would like to discuss here aren’t the drawbacks or merits of raising the retirement age. Instead I will discuss a single aspect of these reforms in Poland, the equalizing of retirement age for men and women. Last week I wrote about the female face of unemployment, the second shift and women’s participation in part-time employment. While I touched on retirement I did not fully discuss the repercussions of women going into retirement at an earlier age. In the US men and women have never had different statutory retirement ages but in some countries, gender has always been a factor in retirement age.
To date 85% of the Polish population is against the gradual rise in retirement age but this is not specific to gender aspects of the legislation. The outdated notion that men and women should retire at different ages, with women retiring sooner despite living longer and typically spending less time in the paid workforce, deserves analysis. Poland is tackling the age and gender issue at the moment but other nations with similar laws are likely to face the same dilemma. The difference in statutory retirement ages between the sexes is the result of a “reward” system that essentially thanks women for the years they sacrificed rearing children. While in a traditional gender role scheme this may appear logical, upon closer examination it doesn’t make sense. First, despite progress over the last few decades, women still earn less than men, in Poland and most parts of the world. The idea of equal pay for equal work may be on the books but in reality financial rewards are not equal. Furthermore, women are over-represented in certain professions that pay less or they overwhelmingly perform part-time work. By being paid less, a woman’s retirement reserve is automatically diminished over a lifetime. Second, by taking time away from the workforce to raise children, women not only forgo a paycheck, which allows them to earn for retirement, but they also become less competent for a promotion or raise because they lack the experience of being consecutively employed. Third, by going into retirement earlier and living longer than men, they spend more years needing benefits which in the first place are not as high as they tend to be for men. Under these circumstances women risk spending long years on what may prove to be an inadequate fixed income.
Continuing to legislate for men and women to retire at a different age, in Poland or anywhere else where the practice persists, goes against everything that gender equality advocates strive for. It is impossible to begin a discussion about the practice of equal pay for equal work unless the general economic double standard is done away with. Women should not be forced directly or indirectly to remain in professions with poorer pay, often by virtue of being mainly occupied by female workers, or part-time work, with fewer options and again poorer compensation. Long years on an inadequate fixed income are nothing to joke about. While widows are eligible to receive their deceased husband’s pension, which most of the time is higher than their own, this does not solve the problem for single women, divorced women and gay women. By keeping this system, countries continue to favor women over men to be homemakers and further obscure larger discussions about progressive social reforms that would allow for maternity and paternity leave for example. As I previously wrote, possibilities of part-time work for fathers and expanded childcare facilities could also help women to spend more time in paid work if they choose to do so. Reforming an archaic system, which holds heterosexual couples in traditional roles as the norm, is likely to have further positive changes for others in society, who do not fit that mold.
Extending the years that people have to spend in employment may not be uncontroversial or popular but can perhaps be made palatable by extending other social benefits. Increasingly, men and women receive equal educations and have similar goals in terms of work and family, so laws that prop up double standards are anachronistic. Early retirement for women’s child rearing sacrifice is also somewhat bogus because if the state truly appreciated this priceless work then years spent raising a family would count towards retirement, as any other work. Monetizing the services of a homemaker may seem odd but considering what someone like a wife and/or mother provides would surely add up to a healthy sum. With its incredible gratitude the state could channel money away from these earnings so that a woman would lose less from her future retirement. I don’t particularly think that this is the best way to handle the inequity in retirement, or any other aspect of economic life between the genders but one worth considering if legislators are still holding onto an antiquated model of society.
It may simply be a fact of living in the 21st century that people in Poland, and many other places have to accept the gradual increase of retirement age. If the current Polish government is successful it means that men’s retirement age will go from 65 to 67 and from 60 to 67 for women. This change would not be immediately but gradually over a number of years. Exceptions with regard to very strenuous or dangerous labor, as always, will be considered, but as the workforce evolves and work becomes less physically demanding more and more people will have to spend additional years in employment. Policies that would further diminish women’s earnings over their work lives, like a proposal by the Polish Agrarian Party to have women retire 3 years earlier for each child she gives birth to, are unlikely to gain favor even in a time when most people balk at these pension changes. Poland has lost a variety of social benefits since the fall of communism making groups like retirees and women fear additional cuts and changes. However, if allowances that are impractical by today’s standards are replaced by modern, smart ones then the government won’t face such an uphill battle in convincing the populace of the merits. Lastly, other countries that don’t have gender specific retirements should think about how they can work to level the playing field, providing women and men with options in their career and family life, as well as guaranteeing a dignified retirement for all.