Faced with an increased senior population and a dwindling working age one, government accountants have spread the word that elderly people need to be encouraged to work longer.

And they are being encouraged, by changes in pension policies that force them to do so. As a result, a social safety net that was designed to reduce retirement inequality nearly a century ago is once again increasing it - some groups are more likely to be disadvantaged by a rise in the state retirement age than others, because some people are more able to work as senior citizens than others. 

The big factors are gender and health, what the government pension system was supposed to mitigate, according to results presented by University of Surrey Professor Sara Arber at the fourth annual Alf Adams Lecture that are based on data from interviews with over 11,000 men and women aged between 60 and 79 (source: Understanding Society Survey, University of Essex). Key findings are that:

  • The income gap between men and women in later life is substantial: men's income is 70% higher than women's. For women, caring for children and families throughout their life often leads to lower pensions, higher levels of poverty and lack of health resources in later life. 

  • Middle-aged women providing care for elderly parents and in-laws are less likely to find suitable employment in later life that can fit around their commitments, which reduces their own future pension income and financial well-being in later life.

  • In the late 60s (age 65-69), 21% of women and 18% of men are working, nearly half of whom are in self-employment, possibly due to the lack of available jobs for the over 65s.

  • Older people employed beyond the age of 65 are often in part-time and precarious jobs. There is employment polarization, with more part-time work, hourly (versus salaried) work, in sectors such as sales and services. 

  • Income inequality from employment in later life is high. The top 10% of employed men in their late 60s earn six times more than the lowest quarter of employed men, and the top 1% earn 15 times more than the lowest quarter.

  • Self-employment is very diverse resulting in huge income inequalities - the top 10% of self-employed men earn 10 times more than the bottom quarter of self-employed men. While the top 1% earn 30 times more than the lowest quarter of self-employed men.

  • Gender inequalities in self-employment earnings in later life are even more pronounced. The top 10% of self-employed men earn 19 times more than the lowest quarter of self-employed women. While the top 1% of self-employed men earn nearly 60 times more than the lowest quarter of self-employed women.

"Our results show that policies to increase employment in later life may be leading to a cumulation of advantage and disadvantage," says Arber. "The older population is growing in number and becoming more diverse every day. Not all pensioners are equal. A common misconception nowadays is that all older people are fit, healthy and able to keep working beyond 65, but this is not true and is heavily dependent on gender, class and wealth. It is essential that these factors are taken into account when considering access to pensions, as some groups may need pensions earlier than others. We need to address income inequality which may be compounded by continued working in later life, as well as ageism that is still prevalent among many employers."