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Female, Old – and Poor?

In a study at Freie Universität, political scientists examine how the various life plans of modern women influence how prepared they are for retirement.

Jan 28, 2011

Rentenvorsorge nicht auf die lange Bank schieben: Lebens- und Erwerbsverläufe von Frauen sind heute vielfältiger denn je, in bisherigen Studien zur Altersarmut wird dies jedoch kaum berücksichtigt.
Pension schemes should not be postponed too long. Women’s lives and their employment histories are more diverse today than ever, yet in recent studies of poverty in old age, this is hardly taken into account. Image Credit: marc hericher / fotolia

In Germany, the face of the elderly poor is a woman’s face. Last year, women in the west of the country received an average of 449 euros in statutory pension insurance from their own working lives, while men received nearly twice as much – 865 euros – according to information provided by Deutsche Rentenversicherung (DRV), the agency that administers the statutory pension insurance program in Germany. But these average figures tell us less and less about the actual working lives and asset situations of elderly women, since every period of parental leave taken and every year spent working part-time widens the pension gap, depressing pension levels and driving survivor benefits down – even though time spent raising children is counted in the system.

At the same time, statisticians have difficulty forecasting the future income of retired women, since the days when women simply married and set their working lives aside as soon as they had children are over: “The course of a woman’s life, and her working life, varies much more widely than has previously been expressed in the generalized studies of poverty among the elderly,” says Barbara Riedmüller, professor of political science at the Otto Suhr Institute at Freie Universität Berlin. Nowadays, there are single mothers who work independently part-time, and there are single career women with two children, just as there are divorced mothers working marginal “400-euro jobs” and childless women who are also occasionally unemployed.

There is also the fact that modern women’s behavior is less easily predicted than it used to be: “Biographic research shows that the lives of women in the 1980s were strikingly different from those of women in the decades before that. Unmarried partnerships and children born out of wedlock, along with a higher risk of divorce, have been major features of the family phase in women’s lives since the 1980s,” Riedmüller says. As for what, exactly, that means in terms of retirement planning for women in middle age – those currently between 40 and 45 years old – that is precisely what political scientist Riedmüller is currently examining as part of a study funded by the Forschungsnetzwerk Alterssicherung (Pension Insurance Research Network) of DRV.

In terms of pension insurance, the group the study is looking at – middle-aged women – is especially relevant, since this is exactly where the largest generations are to be found. Because of sheer numbers, these women will have a marked influence on the later social situation of retirees, making them crucial to the country’s pension policies. “These women have about 25 years ahead of them before they retire. During this time, they can make changes in their pensions through their earnings and savings, plus there is still room to take action at the policy level in order to protect women whose life circumstances put them at higher risk of poverty,” Riedmüller explains. At the same time, she says, important biographic milestones have already been passed. These women have already decided to have children – or not – and their vocational training or academic careers are already complete.

One area that is expected to provide particular insight in the study is its comparison of data on these women and data on women born between 1947 and 1951. The earlier group, now over the age of 60, stands more for the traditional life and work patterns prevalent during Germany’s postwar “economic miracle” (Wirtschaftswunder). This group of women is perfect for comparison, since most of them have already finished contributing to their retirement.

But how will the changing life plans of German women in fact affect the benefits older women receive? And what do women need to do for their part, and policymakers for theirs, to keep retired women in Germany from falling into poverty in the future? “Demographic change is reducing the number of working people, and with it the number of those who are contributing to retirement plans. Immigration alone will be unable to compensate for this development,” Riedmüller says. And it has been a long time since a husband’s pension or a later widow’s benefit, she continues, was sufficient to secure a woman’s standard of living – instead, it is her own working life that does so: “What we need here are pioneers who serve as role models for women, showing that a full-time job is something worth striving for, something that can guarantee financial independence even with advancing age.” Riedmüller and her team of researchers are still in the early stages of the study. Right now, they are defining an initial set of typical biographies in order to make use of distinguishing features such as employment information, number of children, and education levels in the overall study.

Further Information

  • Prof. Dr. Barbara Riedmüller, Dept. of Political and Social Sciences, Otto Suhr Institute of Political Science
    Tel.:  +49 (0)30 / 838-54962, Tel. (secr.): +49 (0)30 / 838-54955,