Chris Bowlby: Was There Ever a Golden Age for Retirement?

Roundup: Talking About History

[Chris Bowlby is a presenter on BBC radio, specialising in history. This feature was first published in the October 2009 issue of BBC History Magazine]

Is this a bad time to grow old? On the face of it, longer life expectancy and better health care should mean an ever increasing distance from our ancestors’ shorter and more miserable lives. Yet headlines referring to unaffordable pensions and “the end of retirement”, as The Economist recently put it, suggests not an improvement but a retreat from a golden age.

Professor Pat Thane of the Centre for Contemporary British History, a specialist on the history of pensions, warns against easy assumptions. “Most people", she says, “have never been able to save for their old age”. Recent decades may have been a golden period for a lucky, mostly male, minority. The majority, however, have not benefited....

Something else that hasn’t changed over time is the fact that elderly women are more prone to poverty. When British pensions were introduced in 1908, it was, says Professor Thane, “mainly for women”. The government recognised that, with their interrupted work patterns and role as carers, women would struggle to pay regular contributions – and they still do....

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