Academic journal article Population

Gender Equality in Pensions: What Role for Rights Accrued as a Spouse or a Parent?

Academic journal article Population

Gender Equality in Pensions: What Role for Rights Accrued as a Spouse or a Parent?

Article excerpt

A recent question in relation to pensions

Acquiring individual pension rights has always been more difficult for women than for men. Because of their lesser presence on the labour market, linked, among other factors, to their still-dominant role in domestic tasks and child care, the retirement pension they receive remains limited in comparison to that of men. This observation can be made in most European countries, with differences linked to the degree of female labour market participation and the structure of the pension system, since different systems attenuate labour market disparities to varying degrees. Women's own pensions(1) are thus far lower than those of men.

Nevertheless, the question of gender equality in pensions received relatively little attention in the pensions debate until around fifteen years ago.(2) For France, Brocas (2004) gives a historical overview of the question of women and pensions, and observes that this dimension has been largely neglected since the 1980s. In particular, she observes that "in the private-sector pension reforms implemented in the early 1990s, and in particular in the reform of the general scheme in 1993, the question of women and pensions was, again, largely absent from the debate". This neglect of the gender dimension is probably explained by the fact that pension inequalities between men and women did not necessarily generate inequalities in their standards of living in retirement. Indeed, in a context where marriage was predominant and stable, lower individual pensions for women only posed a problem in case of widowhood, as the couple shared their resources until one spouse's death, and women were assumed to depend financially on their husbands (the "male breadwinner model"). Survivor's pensions(3) thus offered a solution to the problem of widowhood, and, if sufficiently generous, provided a means to maintain the standard of living of all widows after their spouse's death. The existence of survivor's pension schemes, originally designed for women only, seemed natural in the framework of the traditional breadwinner model. In a pension model built on the basis of paid employment, the survivor's pension extended old-age insurance coverage to the worker's family (Laroque, 1972). The system was designed to ensure that the insured person's duty of support toward his dependent spouse continued after his death. This was the case in Bismarckian systems (France, Germany, Italy), but also in northern European countries (Scandinavian and English-speaking) where the concept of the individualization of rights is more advanced. The breadwinner model was dominant after the war, and was reflected in the existence of survivor's pensions in most countries (Thompson and Carasso, 2002).

The decline of the norm of stable marriage and of the traditional male breadwinner model brought this situation into question. This trend has coincided - in France at least - with the arrival at retirement age of the baby-boom generations, characterized by rising divorce rates and increasing female labour force participation. In this new context, the question of gender equality in retirement has taken on greater importance, becoming a central issue in the pension debate.(4)

Survivor's pensions have therefore been called into question, not only in terms of their principle and their initial justifications, but also with regard to their efficacy in ensuring satisfactory living standards.

In terms of principle, rising divorce rates and women's increasing presence on the labour market are associated with a desire among women to acquire their own rights rather relying on those of their husband.(5) Moreover, the objective of maintaining an individual's standard of living after the death of their spouse makes little sense when, in case of divorce, many years elapse between separation and the former spouse's death. Finally, because marriage rates in younger generations are dropping, the survivor's pension leads to a redistribution away from single people and towards married couples which is by no means clearly justified. …

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