Reject calls to raise retirement age for women

By John Sexton
0 CommentsPrint E-mail, March 4, 2011
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Calls for the National People's Congress (NPC) to increase the retirement age for women from 55 to near 60 are being dressed up as a blow for women's rights and equality. Nobody should be fooled. Apart from the proposal being a classic case of leveling down, once women's retirement age is raised, the assault on provisions for men will begin.

The proposal is part of a worldwide assault on social security. Since the financial crisis, neoliberals have stepped up their attacks on what they disparagingly label "entitlements".

Their standard argument on pensions is that demographic changes have made existing retirement plans unsustainable. People are certainly living longer than when pension schemes were introduced. In China, average life expectancy has risen from less than 40 years in to around 75 today.

But to conclude that this means pensions must be cut is very lazy thinking. Life expectancy is measured from birth, and improvements reflect success in cutting infant mortality. In the past, once people started work and began contributing to pension schemes, they were just as likely to live to a ripe old age as people today. Three of my grandparents – all born before 1900 - lived into their eighties.

As Nobel laureate Paul Krugman has pointed out many times, the changing demographics do not support the arguments of the pension-grabbers.

The pension changes are part of a broader program that includes tax cuts for the rich, "rolling back the state", mass privatization and liberalizing the capital markets. Liberal economists like to sugar the pill by talking about constructing a social safety net. But in calling for hikes in the retirement age they reveal their real attitude to social security.

The neoliberal reform program, taken as a whole, would be disastrous. If China had privatized its banks before 2008 it would have been as helpless as Europe and the US in the face of the financial crisis. And liberalizing the capital markets is shorthand for introducing the kind of casino capitalism that caused the meltdown.

Raising the pension age also takes no account of the rampant age discrimination practiced by employers. As people grow older they find their job opportunities diminish rapidly. And Chinese employers are particularly ruthless in discriminating against older women. It is routine for job interviews to turn into virtual beauty contests. The proposed pensions grab risks leaving women in their fifties with no income at all.

Of course it is possible to find women who are in favor of raising the retirement age. But they usually work in agreeable professions such as academia, the law or the media. It would be much harder to find, for example, a woman bus driver or street cleaner in favor of extending her working life. Legislators should take the time to work out a policy that accommodates the former without discomfiting the latter.

The author is a senior editor in a Beijing-based news website.

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of

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