How A Conversation With My Grandmother Made Me Rethink My Pension

Photographed by Kieran Boswell.
Early February last year I was watching TV with my grandparents in their communist-era flat. In that part of the world – the Apuseni mountains, a broken-up range which forms part of the Carpathians in western Romania – the winters get bitingly cold. "Minus 2 last night," my nana said blithely. "Minus 4 tomorrow." 
I was visiting my grandparents while waiting for the lease on my new flat to start. Flipping between properties happens often in London (the average length of a tenancy is 20 months) but I felt my grandparents’ concern as soon as I got there. They were proud of me and of my achievements, of course, but they were also worried. To them my situation seemed untenably precarious. My grandmother would probe gently: "And you put a little aside every month? You have your little stash?" I nodded. I had something. She continued: "Because it’s very hard to be old and to have no money." I nodded, hiding the fact that I do not have anything close to what you could call a proper pension in savings.

'You put a little aside every month? You have your little stash? Because it's very hard to be old and to have no money,' my grandmother probed gently.

In the UK, 16% of pensioners live in poverty and poverty in old age is more likely to affect women than men. According to EU statistics released earlier this year, in 2018 women in Europe aged over 65 received pensions that were on average 30% lower than those of their male counterparts. There are no official government figures for the UK but according to research by the trade union Prospect, the gender pension gap stands at 39.9%. Meanwhile another recent investigation by Now Pensions and the Pensions Policy Institute found that, on average, women’s private pension income is 55% less than men’s.
It is easy to work out why the disparity exists if you look at employment figures. In the EU, 73% of working age men are employed compared to 62.3% of working age women (in the UK, it’s 72.4% of women and 80.6% of men). Thirty-one percent of those who are out of work because of family commitments are women; only 4.2% of men are out of work because they’re caring for children or elderly parents. Basically, over the course of their lifetimes, women take more time out of work to perform at-home care and are more likely to be overrepresented in lower income roles. Less work on lower pay, over a lifetime, leads to a smaller pension. 
In my grandparents' living room we sat on the sofa and watched a news item about a wild boar attacking a woman in a supermarket. It had come down earlier in the day from a nearby forest and become disoriented. "The whole town was held hostage by a wild pig!" said the newsreader with feeling. "Where were the authorities? It's a scandal." 
It transpired that the authorities had implored the townsfolk, or at least anyone who owned a hunting rifle, to go in search of the pig. Shoot on sight. Shoot to kill. The news report cut to CCTV footage of people running and the pig rampaging through the streets, its big, black porcine head swivelling this way and that so that you could see its two curling white tusks. 
The whole incident made me think about how, back in London a few days before I’d decamped, I had been to see a financial advisor (stay with me here). His office was modular and glass-fronted, on the fourth floor of a marble confection on Pall Mall. I’d arrived late, fast-walking out of the rain, stomping my scuffed boots free of mud, feeling hot – my armpits and top lip damp with sweat – and uneasy. In the office itself (grey carpets and magnolia walls, a grey filing cabinet and a window looking out onto a grey London) I found myself talking fast.

In the UK 16% of pensioners live in poverty and poverty in old age is more likely to affect women than men.

I’d been given his details by my accountant and I’d come because I didn’t have a pension. "If you don’t have any money, you can’t save for a pension," my accountant had pointed out – a little tartly, I thought – in one email. "Yes but I don’t want to end up old and destitute," I’d replied. "I fully understand," he’d sent back. 
In the financial advisor’s office, though, I saw this was a mistake. I felt as wild-eyed and agitated as a pig in a supermarket: a small, squealing, fleshy thing, trotters slipping on the polished floor, more used to grubbing in the dirt than sitting in an ergonomic desk chair. My accountant had been right, people with no money did not have financial advisors. I’d felt it as soon as I stepped onto Pall Mall and eyed the building: the sense that this was not for me, that I was about to embarrass myself in front of this man who was used to dealing with brokers and hedge fund managers. My eyes darted around as I spoke, telling him how much I earned, how much debt I had (all student loans), how much money I’d saved over the years. 
He nodded. "And do you think your earnings are likely to increase?" I was distracted by the emptiness of his desk. There were no family photos, stray papers, highlighter pens or Post-Its; none of the paraphernalia of office life. Just a computer and a pen. "No. I’m not sure my industry works like that," I said. 
I thought absently back to my desk at the last magazine I’d worked at. It was full of crap: two anthologies of short stories, a black wig, drafts of articles that had long since been published, a stack of magazines, a vibrator shaped like a lipstick. "It’s just that, well, I don’t know, umm." 

'The age we have to think of, for you,' the financial advisor said, 'is 68. That's retirement age.' I nodded. Thirty-eight years away. Not so long.

"The age we have to think of, for you," he said, "is 68. That’s retirement age." I nodded. Thirty-eight years away. Not so long. My grandparents had retired many years ago – 28 years for my grandpa, who had been a policeman. ("There are only two of us left alive to go to the 30-year reunion," he once told me, plaintively.) Their days, I think to myself on their sofa as the pig corners a woman in the frozen food aisle, revolve around this cycle: eating and watching the news, and gathering the goods necessary to keep eating, to stay alive, to watch the news. 
I think this is why they talk so extensively about teeth. I remember having a conversation with a friend who said that you’re not meant to survive once your teeth have fallen out – that it’s nature’s way of telling you that time’s up. My grandmother, who still had a few but had suffered through many trips to the dentist that year, seemed to agree. "Look after your teeth," she’d tell me from time to time. "Because once they’re gone, what else have you got?" 
The financial advisor had drawn a timeline, with me, now, aged 30 at one end, aged 68 three-quarters of the way along and a stop at the other end. "To live the way you’re living now, with your current outgoings, you’d need to have a pension of around £600,000." He wrote the figure above the 68 point. 
"And that’s assuming that by this age (68) you would own your house and not have mortgage repayments and that kind of thing to worry about. That £600,000 is to see you through…" he trailed off. Through to death, the other end of the timeline. I smiled and nodded. "Right, yes, okay great. So what’re the next steps?"
I left the conversation, back out into the puddles of Pall Mall, thinking about wealth. I was doing well, in some respects. The average yearly salary in London is around £34,000 and I was earning a bit more than that, off my own back as a writer. My dad had worked in a factory, packing food products (Findus Crispy Pancakes among them – we always had about 12 packs in the freezer), and once said to me: "You’ve got to do well in school or you’ll end up in the factory like me." 

To continue living the way I am now, I'd need a £600,000 pension. Last year, the gender pension gap was reported to be the largest in a decade. There's a looming pensions crisis for women; the question is how we face up to it.

I had done well, I was more than 'managing' – I was living my fucking dream, right? Yet as my grandparents sensed when I’d arrived, explaining that I was "between homes for a month", there was an obvious precariousness to my situation. I had no family wealth. If I stayed in London, I would never own a home. I had no pension and the thought of ever amassing that kind of money seemed staggering to me. How? 
Ours is the first generation to be financially less well off than its predecessors. Average house prices rose 152% in the 20 years to 2015-16, while net family income for 25-34-year-olds only grew by 22%. There is no doubt that saving is harder than it used to be, and pensions seem like a distant, opaque world for women in particular, who according to a number of studies are more likely to avoid looking into it because it seems complicated and confusing. 
On the flipside, I don’t feel like a victim. No one did this to me. I chose a career in media, which is notoriously unstable. I’d grown up an immigrant (I learned English at school) in a town which regularly appeared on 'poorest and most deprived' lists. I had no contacts in an industry built on nepotism. If anything, this was more than choice; I had fucking fought for this, for the opportunity to be writing this sentence. In exchange, I had built a career which was providing me with enough, for now. I had an income, my own teeth. 
And yet, and yet, and yet. I’ve done this to myself, I thought bitterly. I was 'following my dreams', that saccharine adage on which our generation had been raised. I was proving a point. A cold wind started up as I crossed onto Piccadilly, fat drops of ice rain hitting the pavement around me. Really, what does enjoyment have to do with it? I wondered. What good is enjoyment if in a few years time, I won’t be able to pay my rent or feed myself? What was the point of all this? 
The sense that I had started down a path which would eventually lead to lack, even poverty, made me dizzy with worry. I thought of the financial advisor – the cold white lines and clinically clean desk. Here was a serious person. I felt like a silly woman in comparison. I hadn’t made 'savvy' choices and I finally saw that one day, in the not so distant future, I would pay the price.  
To continue living the way I am now, as the financial advisor pointed out, I'd need a £600,000 pension. Last year, the gender pension gap was reported to be the largest in a decade. There’s a looming pensions crisis for women; the question is how we face up to it.
"Poor pig," I mumbled. On screen the woman screamed, the pig squealed. "Poor woman," my grandmother corrected. The date, I realised, was 5th February – Chinese New Year. "The year of the pig," I said to my grandmother. "They're coming for us." 

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