Analysis 01/04/2023

Feminist economy

Retirement in France: Women Stand Up

The working class mobilizes in France against the reform imposed by Macron. Learn more about a feminist perspective on the French pension system

If you push up the retirement age,” Franck Riester had to admit, “it obviously hits women hardest.” On January 23rd, the Minister Delegate for Relations with the Parliament admitted the obvious on the LCP channel. Meanwhile, women themselves did not need his statement to have a clear view of the situation: according to a survey published by IFOP (French Institute of Public Opinion), one week before his statements, 73% of women were against the retirement age at 64, which represents a level of rejection of more than six points above men’s. As stated by the Jean-Marc Ayrault administration in 2013 and by the Jean Castex administration in 2019, the Elisabeth Borne administration has been upholding for months that it abides by a legal order. But no excuses take any effect.

Recommended by big institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the European Commission, the same logic has been observed everywhere over the last thirty years.

Successive reforms aim at limiting, or even reducing, the share of public retirement in the national wealth distribution and, by doing so, enlarging, at the bottom line, the range of capitalization.

All of such reforms tend to reduce pensions level, reinforcing the conditions needed to get them in full. And that is why they reinforce the connection between contributions paid throughout one’s career and the pensions they eventually receive. The more the amount of the latter corresponds to the amount of the former, the more the system is deemed contributory. However, this strong correlation between pensions amount and “contributory effort” weakens the role of solidarity in determining retirement pensions.

Indeed, several provisions aim at complementing pensions for people who went through periods of unemployment or illness, who had to be off work to care for their children, or people who worked in physically demanding jobs or who have worked for long periods of time in their lives [long careers]. These provisions are key for women who benefit from the increase of duration of contributions and minimum pensions.

The strengthening of the contributions systems sanctions all carriers interrupted, shortened, and less compensated; therefore, it punishes to a large extent women’s trajectories in a society in which division of labor — whether it is paid work or unpaid care work — is still governed by the patriarchal domain.

As from the 1960s, due to women’s increased participation in labor market and better qualifications, their pensions disparities compared to men’s gradually reduced; but this reduction has been slackened by the effects of successive reforms and stalled in the last seven or eight years. Today, men’s pensions are 67% higher than women’s. According to the annual report of the French Pensions Advisory Council (Conseil d’orientation des retraites – COR), published in last September, “10.4% of retired women are poor compared to 8.5% of retired men” and “this difference has shown a tendency to increase since 2012”.

This scenario is the result of several reforms implemented since the one enacted by Édouard Balladur and his administration in 1993. But it also results from a failure to adapt to changes in family and employment dynamics. When our pensions system was created, and in the following decades, it certainly allowed for a great social progress, affirming solidarity between generations. But in the model prevailing at that time, it was upon men to provide for the family income: he worked full time, with no career interruption (unemployment was not a problem back then), he contributed to and benefited from specific social-security rights, including retirement. His wife was responsible for the housework and childcare and enjoyed rights resulting from her position as wife. It is part of a logic of dependency.

Although as from the 1960s women’s employment developed on a massive scale, initially in full-time jobs, it was marked by career interruptions due to the fact that they assumed most of childcare. Since the 1990s, anti-unemployment public policies have been encouraging full-time jobs. In practice, such policies were particularly aimed at women, since they are forced to balance family and professional life. In the early 2000s, almost one-third of women worked in part-time jobs.

Their employment model, with shorter careers and part-time jobs, is, thus, different from men’s, and pension rights are calculated based on men’s career model… On one hand, part-time working hours strongly and adversely affect the pension level; on the other, the pension amount calculation is discriminatory against short careers — as, since 1993, the 25 best years of average yearly earnings have been considered instead of the 10 best years, as well as the deduction. This is a double penalty for incomplete careers, as Jean-Paul Delevoye, High Commissioner for Retirement Pensions until 2019, acknowledged. Indeed, pension is already calculated in proportion to actual career time in relation to required career time. The deduction is a further reduction of 5% per missing year. To avoid that, 19% of women and 10% of men of the 1950 generation waited until the age that annuls the deduction (67 years) to settle their pension.

Tracing retirement pension inequalities allows identifying what in the system itself contributes to the disadvantage mostly of women, as much as it allows considering solutions to the problem. In this regard, it is clear that family rights granted in relation to children keep being key to soften gender inequalities in retirement, as long as childcare does not change and remains largely under women’s responsibility. But the strengthening of such rights should not be used as instrument for a policy in favor of equal pensions. In fact, they only make up (partially) for the effects of inequalities without working on their roots… or even contribute to maintain inequalities when they lock women in the mother role.

If a social institution such as retirement attributes additional rights to women in relation to childcare, it necessarily perpetuates the idea that women have a vocation to take care of children.

However, a progressive and coherent policy must contribute both to reducing gender inequalities as to pensions and to transforming the social-security model: it means stopping reinforcing women’s complementary rights — which is counter-productive because maintains sexual division of labor — and starting reinforcing their own right to a full pension.

A pensions system must allow for everyone to build their own rights to a pension that is enough and must contain solidarity provisions to complement such rights in case of unforeseen life events.

On one side, it implies stepping in the pensions system by correcting the disadvantages of women’s shorter careers, starting with elimination of the deduction. It also implies reinforcing the relationship between the pension and the best average yearly earnings, in contrast with the current evolution that reinforces the relationship between contributions paid and pension received. Finally, it implies that a full career that corresponds to the labor market reality must be maintained. This is not the case today: validated careers duration has diminishing since the 1955 generation, according to COR, while the required contribution period keeps increasing. As a result, the gap between them only widens over time, setting up a new reduction in pensions. A progressive change in model could thus draw the required contribution period closer to women’s average career time.

On the other side — and the most important factor —, it is crucial to work on stages that come before retirement itself: women’s careers and access to employment. Things such as having a quality full-time job and being not subject to unequal pay. It requires transformation of social relations of gender in society as a whole and definition of a desirable equality model. The feminist perspective of emancipation rejects the concept of complementary roles for women and men, as it always reflects on the depreciation of the female role. It is also not about fitting women into the male “mold” of today’s world. On the contrary: such desirable model is one in which, for instance, parents would be equally involved in their children’s education. If housework and parenting are equally shared, mothers do not need to be off work neither replace their full-time job with a part-time job.

Financial autonomy is decisive for women’s emancipation; it is key to ensuring them, through acquisition of their own rights, the means of subsistence without depending on the civil state neither on the always uncertain stability of a couple. Having a quality full-time job, not being subject to unequal pay — which also implies a revaluation of professions dominated by women — are essential conditions not only for women’s future retirement, but also for their autonomy throughout their lives. It is, at the same time, a very effective lever to improve pensions funding, with equal pay and equal labor force participation rates, providing a significant additional gain in contribution.

In 2021, according to the French National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE), labor force participation rates for women and men between 25 and 54 years old were of 84% and 92%, that is, a difference of 8 points. If they were equal, 1.1 million more women would be working. Although the difference has continually reduced over the last forty years, its current level is maintained as shown in INSEE and COR projections to 2070. It reflects an ideological conservative resistance to female progress!

Eliminating obstacles to women’s employment still means meeting childcare needs in a satisfactory way. Although the situation in France is better than in neighboring countries, almost one million children younger than 3, or half of them, can’t find a place in day care. Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne’s promise made in July 2022 about creating 200,000 day care centers, thus, seems to be far from fulfilled. Addressing such needs, as well the needs for services aimed at people who lost autonomy, within the scope of public service improvement, would create many new job positions, both for men and women, the value of which should be recognized. This whole area of human activity, performed mostly by women both in the market and in the public sector, builds the social fabric.

Becoming aware of such a process would promote the birth of a new and wider social imaginary; would drive us to question the meaning of labor, our life styles, nature, and the priorities of economic production. In this aspect, the feminist issue is similar to the ecological issue. Both discuss a general reduction of working time, not its increase: to reorient labor around activities essential to life, aimed at the well-being, at social usefulness, at the care with others, and at preservation of the planet.

Over the long history of human emancipation, a key element of social progress has always been that of reduction of working time per day, per week, and then over one’s lifetime.

The criticism against the current pensions system, together with the affirmation of a feminist perspective, gradually conducts to establishing landmarks to a global transformation in society. Reaching equality will certainly take a long time, but the current invisibilization of the potential connected to women’s employment certainly doesn’t help turning it into reality…

Researcher and author of The Feminist Perspective on Retirement [L’Enjeu féministe des retraites], La Dispute, Paris, to be published on April 21, 2023. This text was originally published in French on Le Monde Diplomatique.

Translated from Portuguese by Rosana Felício dos Santos
Original language: French

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