Women and retirement: Working just as hard but unpaid?
Part 7 of a 9 part series
Two weeks ago, Moira Ferguson invited me to her home in Ilkley, West Yorkshire, to meet, as she put it, “a fine bunch of feisty women”.
“We’ve all been friends for over 30 years and are now at different stages in the retirement zone,” she emailed. “By chance, we’re gathering to chat about how and when to retire, and how we all feel about it. You would be made very welcome.”
I didn’t need inviting twice. I had been keen to dedicate part of this series to considering women and retirement, and a week later I joined Moira, 67, who trained as a drama teacher before going into management and retiring at 55 because of ill health, in her kitchen.
Gathered round a wine bottle, already deep in conversation, were friends Karen Jones, Helena Lindo-Jones, Jo Habib and a fifth woman, who asked to be known only as Madeleine. Why, I wondered? Because she worried that if her employer and colleagues realised she was considering reducing her hours – or worse, actually retiring – it would be the “death knell” for her career.
The friends are at different stages of approaching retirement. Karen, 58, who retired as an assistant headteacher last July, has spent the last five months setting up as a leadership coach. “This has been very empowering,” she said. “I feel more confident as a person – even way younger!”
Helena, 61, retired last October after struggling to combine her career as disability adviser and head of service at the University of Bradford with caring for her elderly mother. Jo, her cousin, who is 68, and established the West Yorkshire Charities Information Board, went part-time in 2010, and then retired in 2013. Since 2010, she has cared for her grandchildren for three days a week.
During our conversation, the friends noted their position of privilege and voiced the concern that they sounded like “these poncey, middle-class women in Ilkley fretting about these trivial things”. “I worry we sound crass,” said one. I don’t think that’s the case – but I would ask you to respect the group’s generosity in allowing us to share their conversation and honest observations if you leave a comment.
Karen: Really deep-rooted gender issues have appeared since I’ve retired that it never occurred to me were there. In 37 years of marriage, I’ve never looked after the house or cooked a meal. But since I’ve been at home, I’ve gone from not giving a toss to being Doris bloody Day. I wonder if latently, I’ve always felt guilty about not caring about the housework, and now I subconsciously feel I have to make up for it. It’s really weird. Have you had issues like that, Helena?
Helena: I have. When I retired, I found myself doing things like cleaning out my children’s old drawers. I think it was about remaking my nest. I really enjoyed the purging: at work I ran a tight ship but I’ve not had time to get things organised at home for 40 years.
Moira: It’s when there’s chaos in your head that we get all concerned about this. Retirement triggers chaos in your head. Also, you have to find things to do during the day: you can’t just sit down and watch daytime telly.
Helena: My partner and I retired at the same time and I’ve observed real gender-based differences between us. He’s basically much better at retirement than I am. He can potter and doesn’t have the same sense of loss or the guilt which keeps me busy.
Karen: Friends have talked about life with your partner being like a Venn diagram, where the bit in the middle is what you do together and the bits on either side are what you do on your own. Pre-retirement, your children are in that middle space and your careers are in the spaces on either side. With both the children and the jobs gone, all those spaces are empty. It’s a very powerful concept.
Moira: Unless all the spaces are full of your grandchildren. Then you find you’re doing tons.
Jo: I think there are important gender issues around caring for grandchildren and retirement. I do an awful lot and in their heart of hearts, I know the parents feel that I want to spend all this time looking after their children purely because I’m a woman. It is lovely – but they don’t quite see that it’s a serious job and commitment, and it’s one that stops me enjoying my retirement in other ways. If I was a grandfather, I would not be expected to do this. And if I did do it, it would be seen as much more of a job.
Helena: It’s the same issue with caring for elderly parents: responsibility falls on the female members of the family.
Moira: Money and retirement is another very interesting issue. It’s quite interesting how horrible it is not having your own salary.
Jo: I’ve come to think that money is the most divisive aspect of retirement. When you’re working, you can have a quite different income from somebody else but you’re still equal. But once you retire, the difference between those who have big pensions and those who have small ones divides people who have previously been friends. Health in retirement is another horribly divisive issue.
Amelia: Do you feel vulnerable because now you’re retired, barring windfalls, your income is set in stone?
Jo: Yes. I do feel vulnerable about that. When I was younger, I could always get a different job if we didn’t have enough to live on.
Karen: I agree. That’s been the impulse for me to set up on my own: I can’t let go of the need to earn money.
Amelia: The state retirement age is getting later and later. Can you all imagine working until your 70s?
Helena: I know how much my energy diminished between 50 and 61, and I can’t imagine being able to go on into my 70s. The irony is that I’ve got so much expertise and wisdom: I look back at my last five years in work and say: “God in hell, I was good!” But then it all went to waste because I couldn’t have carried on at that pace, but I couldn’t reduce my hours, because the nature of the modern workplace is that everyone’s trying to get more from you, for less. I also had this strong anxiety about being seen as lightweight. Retiring seemed preferable.
Karen: Towards the end, you’re kind of cut loose in the workplace. But that’s when the richness of us older people ought to be harnessed.
Jo: It’s also that one thinks: “I’ve been here, I’ve done this and it’s not changing, so can I really be arsed to go through it again?”
Karen: I don’t think we have as much problem thinking about a man in his 50s – or even his 70s – as being full of potential and wisdom, and taking on positions of power.
Moira: But it’s about appreciation rather than taking on positions of power and doing more. Part of being at work is to be appreciated. What actually happens to women is that we get to be head of this or that department, then suddenly we’re retired and cleaning our drawers.
Karen: And our knickers are all arranged by colour …
Helena: There have been times when I’ve felt so absolutely privileged to be retired. This freedom is very, very special.
Karen: I agree. But I still hate the word “retirement”. It’s such a passive word. I struggle with it and shudder every time someone uses it. I can’t accept it.
Madeleine: I’m really struggling as to what to do. I don’t have the energy to push the way I used to but should I retire? Should I go part-time? I’m torn about even suggesting I might want to reduce my hours in case it suddenly changes my position at work, both internally and externally.
“Another thing I’m struggling with is the reality of looking like an older woman in the workplace. Part of my interest in retiring or reducing my hours comes from feeling that I don’t look or sound as potent or powerful as an older woman as I did when younger.
Moira: That is incredible. You’re an international expert in your field and yet inside you, you think: “Oh heck, I’m a has-been. Who’s going to listen to a woman in her 50s?”
Amelia: Are you more critical of your appearance now than when you were younger?
Madeleine: Yes. It’s an internal judgment of yourself that you’re no longer meeting the feminine ideal.
Moira: But intellectually, you’re streaks ahead of all the people in that room. And yet inside, you can be terrorised that you have the extra inch of this and that?
Amelia: What other people think of your appearance shouldn’t matter, should it? You should be free - especially at this age - to be your most powerful self.
Karen: Oh Amelia, it absolutely continues to matter. When my female colleagues started wearing five-inch heels and figure-hugging suits that didn’t suit me, I found it very difficult.
Amelia: What does retirement mean to each of you?
Madeleine: Freedom from institutional constraints, to just be.
Karen: I’ve got choice now. I’ve got options. That’s fantastic.
Helena: Time. Time on my hands. That’s fantastic.
Jo: An equal amount of work, but most of it unpaid.
Moira: I don’t know what it means to me! It’s still a work in progress.