“Why should we care about the WASPI women?” A guide for millennials

20 May 2019

WASPI Reception, Scottish Parliament. Video: Jennifer Jones

Why we should be paying attention to policy changes to pensions

It’s a Thursday lunchtime and I am surrounded by women my mother’s age. We are meeting at a busy cafe in my hometown of Ayr.

The venue, Unity Grill, is a pay-what-you-can-afford social restaurant. The ethos is that people can volunteer in return for a free meal voucher, or even pay ahead for somebody else’s lunch who might not be able to afford it. It was set up to provide a warm and inviting space for both community groups and paying diners alike. The women meet here regularly.

Frances Brown was born in 1953. We first met in the public gallery of the Scottish Parliament after a cross-party debate hosted by Sandra White MSP of the SNP and Jackie Baillie MSP of the Scottish Labour Party. She is one of 3.8 million women across the UK and nearly 56,000 in Ayrshire who were born in the 1950s. They were the first wave of women to be impacted by the rise in the state pension age from 60 to 65, then again in 2011 to 66 by October 2020.

Brown has played a pinnacle role in coordinating the women to come to meet me. She is one of the WASPI women, standing for the Women Against State Pension Injustice campaign. WASPI was founded in 2015, with groups forming all over the UK. I am meeting with representatives from the Ayr branch to try and make more sense of this Westminster policy change.

Lynne, Unity Grill. Photograph: Jennifer Jones

Her colleague Lynne Paterson emphasises that 14 other women wanted to join us. Eight others had compiled statements for me to read. Each one is a personal story of how they have been affected by the changes to the state pension age.

Jackie Baillie, MSP, told me that she had experienced the same response when she organised a meeting for WASPI women in her Dumbarton constituency, which lead to the event at parliament. Baillie said: “I arranged a meeting with the women in Dumbarton. I was stunned when hundreds of women turned up to meet me. So we were keen, to not just do that in our local areas but to actually host a cross-party group in the [Scottish] parliament itself. We felt we needed to also host a reception afterwards so that MSPs can learn what it is like, what the financial hardship are for this whole generation of women born in the 50s that are WASPI women.”

Until now, I had heard about the WASPI campaign in passing. I had seen them at political gatherings, dressed as suffragettes, wearing WASPI sashes. I had read a few articles about their DWP letter writing campaign and seen Mhairi Black prolifically debate the issue in Westminster via viral videos on social media. But even at that, I am still trying to get my head around their demands as a financially-naive thirty-something who began their professional career at the peak of the 2007 financial crisis.

Standing in my mother’s kitchen, a woman born in the 1950s herself, she is asking me to consider: “Why we should care about the WASPI women?”, reflecting back the criticism she often receives when she comes to their defence. The challenge for some, especially generations that feel that pensions are a pipe dream, is that the WASPI demands seem too far removed from our current reality. Also, the word “pension” seems to make people my age want to go buy another round of drinks, chuckling nervously that it is better to spend it now because they are dismantling the system for when we get there. I am the master of this sort of deflection.

I log onto Twitter, and tweet some early thoughts about the WASPI campaign. For the first time, I encounter “pension twitter”, a hive of activity. It turns out to be as controversial as any other divisive political issue currently being played out online. This I did not expect. I am accused of being “manipulated” by the women, that I have been duped by their campaign, that somehow what I am working on is propaganda for their cause. Nobody is willing to go on the record, mainly out of the fear that they’ll be accused of being a troll. I take a step back, pension politics making my head spin. But in reality, I am more inclined to think I am now even more WASPI-curious.

After many years of austerity, pensions are the topical issue. The promise is that if you work hard, and give the government your money through national insurance, you will reap the benefits when you reach the end of your working life. The national pension pot, whatever that looks like in practice, has been dipped into over the years. In 2011 George Osborne saw the opportunity to save billions by closing the gap in the pension age and to make it “equal”, no matter side of the political gap you fall on.

Davina, Unity Grill. Photograph: Jennifer Jones

In Ayr, this is Davina’s first WASPI meeting. She is a retired head teacher. But she is here to talk about her sister. “Personally I don’t have a super story to tell, my sister is the person I see struggling with these changes” she says. “My sister is a cleaner in the hospital, she has fibromyalgia, fallen arches in her feet, sore knees, and she will have to work until 67. She cannot leave, she has no pension as she’s only worked there eight years. And she is working every day. Every single day. And she is in agony, because she needs to work. And she only found out about the pension age changes when the age was raised to 66. One year added on is a lot different from six.”

She iterates: “Having an equal pension age is not the issue, it was meant to be equalised at a steady pace, but it jumped up to match the men’s age. It was an easy way for the government to save a lot of money by accelerating it.”

SNP MSP Sandra White, co-convener of the WASPI cross-party group at the Scottish Parliament, puts it bluntly: “Women entered into a contract, they entered into a contract with the Westminster government. They paid it in in their national insurance contributions, they should be getting that money now. If I was to put this money into a private pension, I would be entitled to get that money back. Who says it is right to change the terms of the contract, it is not a benefit, it is a contract. And they are entitled to this money.”

Christine, Unity Grill. Photograph: Jennifer Jones

Christine Smith was born in 1954. She has considered herself an activist all her working life. Despite having access to a private pension from her workplace, Smith joined WASPI to fight on behalf of those who will get nothing.

For her, it is not about the fact the pension age has been levelled to match the men’s age for retirement, but it was about the way it was done: “It should have been about equality for women, but it was done in a dismissive way towards women to say, well there are a group of women, what they going to do about it, nobody is going to bother – and we’ve treated like this women for years, a little bit more is not going to make much difference?”

Working in a civilian role within the police, she reflects on her shift patterns and the women that she would see on the way to work: “I would start work at 6am in the morning and it would be freezing. I would be travelling through Maryhill, and I would see these wee women, standing at bus stops waiting for buses.

“At that time of the morning, they would be few and far between, so that they could get to their shift in Glasgow, and then will probably be going out later on at lunchtime, then a shift in the evening, plus they were expected to look after their own family and potentially their parents.”

Smith emphasises that the current discussions around precarious working practices are not new. She says: “Zero-hour contracts in these days were called casual labour. And many women had to take jobs like this. They would have been going in, probably unofficially, probably didn’t have any pension at all – there would have been somebody giving them a bung for doing their work.”

For many of the WASPI women, they have had to return to lower income, less secure jobs in order to make up the shortfall in their earning. And with so little discourse around the impact that these changes have had for women, other institutions have failed to catch up with the impact.

Frances, Unity Grill. Photograph: Jennifer Jones

Frances describes another friend, who she met through the WASPI movement: “She got divorced several years ago. Her divorce settlement was based on her retirement age being 60. So when she moved house and took on a small mortgage, it was all based on her retirement age of 60. Then she found out this was not the case.

“She ended up having to take three part-time cleaning jobs, morning, lunchtime, and evenings to make up the shortfall. She came to my house for a meeting. And five other women came to my house that day. She was working four mornings a week, she came to us on one of the mornings she wasn’t working and she was absolutely knackered, and we were all whispering when we were doing the letters. We couldn’t bear to wake her up…”

Bernie, Unity Grill. Photograph: Jennifer Jones

Bernie French, born in 1956, a trained therapist, also found herself having to look for work to help make up the shortfall. She is on the books as a self-employed counsellor, on a zero-hour contract, but hasn’t had a shift since January.

She notes that the career services in Scotland just don’t know how to support women her age and are stuck in this limbo: “When I went to Skills Development Scotland, they were really nice – but totally unhelpful. They are for younger people at the start of their career… We fall through every single crack there is. I looked at everything. I wrote to my local MSP – I was told to try this, and then try that – but I’m not sure I can help you. I was the wrong age, I wasn’t on benefits, I didn’t qualify for anything. And I will not be the only one.”

The type of job available for women then, and even now, is also important when considering the WASPI case. A question raised by the women, many of whom challenged and carved out the original space for women in the workplace, is this: was their long working life ever equal to what was available to men in their first place?

French reflects on when she first entered the workplace at 13: “It was normal to see advertisements for the same job, and a woman would get two thirds of what a male salary was.

“For my first job, I worked in a small store, and they’d only just introduced the requirement for employers to employ girls as well. This guy who was the manager, he was clearly not happy with having to employ girls. And because the boys were mainly in the storeroom, he would pay them more.”

For French, it is only since looking back through her career has she recognised that these situations of inequality was just something put up with. The feeling that it was “lucky” to work in the stockroom with the boys, instead of receiving the same pay when she was doing the same job: “The number of times I spent in that storeroom, doing the same job, but getting paid less, because officially I wasn’t working in the store room…Yet, it I felt like it was an honour because I was like…I was working in the hallowed ground of the store room. That was the normal, but that is your inequality right there.”

Frances has fought for equality in the workplace for her entire career, and did so because she knew she didn’t have it. Despite being promoted to a principal officer, and the only one at that level with a degree, she found out that her other colleagues – all men – were earning more than her. She even had more responsibilities: “I was managing two teams, the others were managing one team. My two teams were 43 miles apart – because I was in a large county with very disparate areas. It was more work, more responsibility, more driving. And I was cheaper for them.

“So all my working life, I have struggled to be treated the same. And now suddenly now I am 60, I have to be treated the same as men. I think that it is grossly unfair.”

Listening to their stories, I can feel their frustration. It is 2019 and they’re still fighting against inequality. And they still feel like they are not being listened to. What hope do we have when it feels like that so many things have changed but nothing has changed at all?

They are also faced with intergenerational tensions. When trying to reach out to their younger family members about their plight, they are met with the perennial “it’s ok for you, at least you are getting a pension” (sorry mum) and expected to provide care and support for the generation below, and quite often the generation above as well.

A positive, however, has been the collective nature of the WASPI women and how they have came together, shared stories and formed friendships. As White emphasised in parliament: “These women have not only became educated, but they have become politicised also.”

So, I return to my mum’s statement ““Why we should care about the WASPI women?” and I am reminded of the words of feminist and civil rights activist Audre Lorde:

“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”

For our generation to so passively abandon the hope that there would be anything left for the future, for us to ignore the way the older generation is spoken to and about – this is a reflection of where we want to go as a society. It is convenient to have us all at loggerheads with each other over political issues; intergenerationally, it is even more so. The women remind me that there is still a long way to go when it comes to equality in the workplace, and beyond – and that rights that were hardfought, and things that were promised, can be taken away again just as quickly. Their energy to keep on fighting, even when they are faced with criticism and uncertainty, is something we should all be paying attention to.

This Post Has 33 Comments

  1. Thanks Jennifer for such a well written piece. It conveys so well the frustrations of the WASPI generation who fought so hard for the improvements to Women’s lives then ironically had their own pension entitlements snatched from them in the name of Equality. It truly is a Catch-22 situation for 3.8 million women and their families. We fear for the younger generation too- it doesn’t have to be like this. To find a local group visit the http://www.waspiscotland.uk website which also links to the National Campaign.

  2. Beautiful, heartfelt article. Thank you

  3. Thank you for taking the time to write this very good article. Hopefully if some of the younger members of the general population read this they might finally realise what the WASPI campaign is about and not be so quick to condemn us.

  4. Great article, please have word with my son. I wish he would come with me on protest and feel as I feel. He has helped me financially as I did him years back

  5. Brilliant artical says it all thankyou

  6. Good article. Unfortunately 1950s women aren’t being treated the same as men even though SPA has been devastatingly raised for them/us. Which (2018) reports a 29k state pension shortfall over retirement for women, using data prior to these SPA changes running out, so where women got their pension earlier and lived longer. This shortfall is likely to be worse for 1950s women. The New Pension rules (2016) ensure that this shortfall will be exacerbated.
    Anyone interested in the discrimination angle can look at Ginn (1993) Vanished Women, the early 1990s Hansard notes, recent Cridland report and Which (2018). There was never an equality agenda, just an added inequality for women after a lifetime of the same. Alston is correct about the role of misogyny here. Cridland demonstrates that there are no plans to address the impact of the Pay and Pension Gaps on later life for women. We need an equal pay out state pension scheme.

  7. Thankyou Jennifer for such a fabulous article .

  8. Many thanks – so many varied scenarios depicting the same discrimination and anguish not of our making

  9. This was such a well written piece and clearly shows the frustration us Waspi have but more clearly it shows the cunning of government to pit the young against the old, the rhetoric of change the record about pensions.
    I wish the young would wake up to see they are a tool to be used for government purposes. The government stirs up disrespect for the old.

  10. Thankyou for this wonderful article. I was born 1959, I too am having to work,struggling .I have worked all my life full time while raising my children.I now have osteoarthritis as have many of us .My life would be so much less stressful If I was receiving my pension. I am fully behind these women and their campaign.

  11. So well said. I have retired early due to ill health. I receive a small teaching pension, so small that I don’t pay tax. I can’t work or do voluntary work as part of receiving my pension early. (I did lots of part time and supply work as I was looking after our children) When I started work I believed I would receive my state pension (NOT a benefit as some reports have labelled it) at 60. My retired husband and I ‘earn’ too much for me to receive benefits. I will not receive my bus pass until I’m 66 when I receive my state pension. I’m not ill enough for ESA or PIP.
    Many women I have talked to in my local WASPI group are having to work to a pension age they found out about too late to try to plan other options, and to rub salt in the wound as they are still having to pay NI and tax.
    It’s the fact we didn’t have enough time to plan ahead. Many of us were played less, for me due to taking part time or supply jobs, and so if we were lucky enough to have a work place pension, it was very much reduced. Yes it was my decision to take these jobs, but I believed I would receive my state pension at 60 and so this would help me.

  12. Not just sympathetic but well thought through. I hope younger people will read this, join us and help us fight our just cause – because we need their support too. If only they could see how much this issue affects them too!

  13. Very supportive article stating the obvious that equality does not exist and case studies that can be multiplied by 3.8m ! Young generation are waking up to our plight through recognition of how it will eventually Rob them too.thank you for all support.shout out loud on 5&6th June in support of JR to health this injustice.

  14. Excellent article, born in 54, divorced and now counting down the weeks to getting my pension after 5.5 extra years. Working for NHS on wards and I really have had enough now
    My kids get it and have signed petitions spread the word etc.
    They are aware their pension age will be higher- I wasn’t at their ages.

  15. At last someone has looked at the facts and formed a reasoned opinion rather than listening to the bias that is churned out by the government. What a brilliant, well thought out article.

  16. Born 1954, small occupational pension, arthritic knee’s, supported by my husband, he was born 1952 so has his state pension, but worked up to 66y, live with fear if anything happens to him I am out there needing to work, no widows pension, all other benefits means tested, feeling depressed.

  17. Superb article. Our hard earned contributions of 40 plus years have been used to pay towards the National Debt. Not widely known – hardly surprising as there has been barely any coverage by the media – despite rallies and demonstrations outside Parliament and local groups gathering momentum. This smacks of the government gagging press and tv. When Robert Maxwell misappropriated pension funds it was a front page scandal and reported in every news bulletin for months.

    We need support but we need exposure in the media! 50’s born women are turning to food banks, to their gps – unable to cope and ultimately to suicide in desperation. What bigger scandal is there than that?

  18. This article showed why WASPI women are so angry. We are treated as if we are invisible to governments past and present.

  19. Thanks for an uplifting read. Time that Govt addressed this but too busy turning itself on its head. Its a Revolution we need.

  20. Well written, the whole thing is so unjust. I had a male colleague who said women always wanted equal rights so we have them retiring the same age as men – my answer to him was it will only be equal with men can give birth, be the main carer, do the shopping, do the house works, be the main taxi driver, help with elderly relatives AND work part or full time, no reply was his answer.

  21. Great article, Jennifer, I’m lucky as Ive a work pensioners but so many women my age, a mid 1954 baby, have been appallingly treated and are exhausted. We paid our NI entered a contract with the government which has been torn up. I do hope others of your generation will continue to support we WASPI women

  22. Thankyou to all

  23. Thank you so much. Am only sorry you were also on the pointy end of the detractors, most of whom are Financial Advisers, and who stand to lose out financially if we are helped…

  24. Sad thing is I talk to young women with children and they are in the same trap we were , men walk out of the door to work with no responsibility’s. Women are left juggling work and family life. Taking low paid jobs , and jobs they can fit round the school holidays, to supplement the money. As the price of child care for working classes is to expensive now. Might I add we had no child care , it was not invented then for working class. How can things ever change for women. ? Unless we make men give birth to children ha ha.

  25. Thank you for a great article! Sadly it’s not just a generational issue when we have the likes of I’m-alright-Jack Anne Widdecombe calling us names for wanting what we’re entitled to and paid for. Please send this to her and educate her.

  26. Thanks for writing such a well-balanced and thoughtful article. As a Gen X-er I hadn’t thought about the plight of WASPI women much, but having read their stories I totally get why they feel so angry (and why this is entirely justified).

  27. It’s disgusting how we’ve been treated ..born Feb 1954 expected to get my pension at 60 was shocked t find I had to work another 5 and a half years counting down the weeks now really had enough

  28. Interesting article thank you Jennifer and all the ladies in Ayr. – The 50’s Pensionless women have on top of the SP changes, been let down badly by the proposals of all the Political Parties thus far. and also by within the Leadership of Waspi with a series of infighting which has lasted years, thereby, prolonging the sufferering of all women affected. Whats not mentioned is the forthcoming court case on 5th/6th June in London thanks to the Backto60 campaign who have worked tirelessly to get this to court against all the odds. Please see http://www.backto60.com for info. and a true reflection of the current position.

  29. Great reading and so sad but so true. I was born in 1955, started part-time work at the age of 13, full-time at the age of 15 and now, at age 64 years and 4 months, am still waiting on my well deserved SP. Dreadful treatment of women who have worked hard, as well as raising children, without complaining.

  30. Grateful to you for making public the injustice of the government’s withdrawal of 1950s women’s pensions for up to 6/7 years. Where else are we to find that financial support promised by the state? Anger turns to fear about how to cope. Claiming benefits? Applying for work? We are exhausted We have worked for a lifetime but we must show our job adviser that we’ve applied for lots of jobs – or we’re sanctioned. Humiliating to be treated like a rebellious schoolchild. Five years of applying brought me one interview! There aren’t enough jobs for young people so why do they think that we would be chosen over a young, fresh mind and body? Wrong to even try to take work from young people. Health conditions are common when you’re in your 60s but you’re dragged through capability assessments that are loaded against you being found unfit. So you’re back to the pointless search for work. Punished just for being a 1950s-borm woman.

  31. Thank you for this excellent report. It really needs all women impacted by this gross injustice, women within their families, colleagues etc to share, SHARE across social media.

  32. Thank you Jennifer for this excellent article. It is vital that young people understand the case of the 1950s born women and their state pension and this article does so much to assist that. There is so much misinformation out there and constant attack on us from all areas whether it is arrogant and thoughtless MPs or members of the public who just do not ‘get it’. We 50s women are as concerned for the future of young people as we are for ourselves. Our campaign has highlighted so much that has gone on behind closed doors and exposed so many of the lies that are perpetuated in the news and media. What happened to us will happen again unless justice is done. ‘Robbery in the name of equality’ has been a common slogan at demonstrations and is just what it says. Equality begins at the beginning not at the end and for future generations this case has to be sorted now.

  33. Thank you for sharing other women’s problems , a little of each I can identify with. I myself am a 50’s born woman who has worked all her life. Experience verified I want to say , we need a government who have a strong sense of ‘ a duty of care ‘ for the general voting public .
    This is lacking on so many levels , many many more than us! To tv lisences being means tested being the latest. As an aging lady I do not intend to sit by anymore and let someone else tell me what I can and can’t have! In case of the government it’s what I can’t have!
    Judy Edmunds RGN

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