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The Invisible Retirement of Women

  • Economics


In tracing the history of retirement in Canada it is evident that retirement is a social institution that reflects the social forces that defined the 20th century -- the rise of industrialism, the devastation of the Great Depression and World War II, the growth of welfare, economic globalization, the spread of mass unemployment and the fiscal crisis of the welfare state. It is also the history of men's retirement, not women's retirement. With the increase in the labour force participation rates of women, it is only recently that retirement has become a meaningful concept to apply to some women. Indeed, the concept of retirement has no particular meaning outside of paid labour and pension policy. It also has little meaning in the context of serial employment over a lifetime. By employing a gendered relations approach to the history of retirement in Canada it rapidly becomes evident that retirement is not a concept one would readily apply to women over the course of its early development. Preceded by "stepping down", retirement in most historical accounts means leaving the paid labour force with a pension, the latter factor making labor force withdrawal economically feasible. In reviewing women's behaviour patterns in relation to men's from pre-industrial times to the 1960s, the most that can be said is that women were invisible in the development of retirement because its evolution into a social institution occurred within the context of the labor market where women were least likely to be found. Women's retirement was tied to the breadwinner model of the family, a model embedded in the Annuities Act of 1908 and operationalized in the administration of the Old Age Pension Act of 1927. In tracing the history of retirement it seems clear that retirement was a social institution developed mainly for men. Women were, at most, ancillary to the process. An analysis of the history of women's retirement is important for many reasons. The history of women and retirement indicates that a model of women's retirement must be driven by theory that, at minimum, takes into account gender relations and the concomitant gender system as it changes over time. Such a model might help to explain why women have spent the last twenty years playing "pension catch-up" to men, or might explain how the progressive erosion of the breadwinner model is likely to affect women's retirement in the future (Beck, 1992; Giddens, 1992; Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, 1995).

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