It’s a rule of thumb in Israeli politics that if Nehemia Shtrasler attacks you, you must have done something right. In his Haaretz Op-Ed on March 30, Shtrasler presents a distorted picture of the position taken by MKs Shelly Yacimovich, Orli Levi-Abekasis, Merav Michaeli and me on raising the retirement age for women, then goes on to attack the straw man he set up. If, for a change, he had delved deeply into the issue he was writing about, he would have discovered a completely different picture from the one he tried to paint.
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First, I don’t reject the idea of raising the retirement age for women out of hand. However, I do think any such change must be made cautiously and gradually, while providing solutions for women in their fifties who have been spit out of the labor market and can’t reenter it, and for women who have worked for many years under physically and emotionally exhausting conditions.
It’s important to be precise. The current debate isn’t really about the retirement age. In reality, the retirement age is a personal decision. Even today, a woman who wants to can work until at least age 67. Thus, the debate is actually over the age at which a woman can receive a means-tested old-age allowance.
Raising the retirement age by two years means that women who aren’t working will be able to get their allowance only from age 64 instead of from age 62. In a situation where the job market isn’t adapted to reabsorb unemployed women in their sixties, this postponement of their allowance – as a corollary of raising the retirement age – would abandon them to lives of poverty, with no pension, no old-age allowance and no income.
It really takes a special kind of chutzpah to argue, as Shtrasler does, that we need to raise the retirement age for women because the current retirement age constitutes “discrimination against men.” Somehow, we’ve never heard him railing against the lifelong inequality that women suffer in the job market – the fact that girls are channeled into “female” professions and paid less; the fact that women earn, on average, 33 percent less than men and are expelled from the job market at a younger age and at much higher rates than men. Shtrasler only screams “Discrimination!” when he’s talking about worsening the situation for women.
Instituting formal equality in a place where there is no equality won’t solve anything. It will only widen the existing gaps and worsen the economic situation for women, as well as their status in the job market. Achieving gender equality is a hard, complicated job, which comes down to more than blindly raising the retirement age.
Shtrasler also argues that the previous hike in the women’s retirement age, in 2004, “did nothing but good” for women. But a closer look tells a different story. A study by the Adva Center, which analyzed the effect of raising the retirement age on older women, found the rise did in fact achieve its goal of increasing women’s participation in the workforce, but at an intolerable cost.
According to the study, though women’s workforce participation rate rose overall, it plummeted sharply after age 55, and many women had trouble getting by until they became eligible for their pensions. At age 61, a year before their pensions kick in, about half of all women with no college education and some 30 percent of women with a college education were out of the workforce.
It’s easy for Shtrasler to present our demand to narrow gaps in the labor market as a special-interest battle by women. It’s much harder to offer solutions to a complicated situation in which life expectancy is rising, but women’s status in the job market isn’t improving.
Every week, I am contacted by women for whom raising the retirement age would be a cruel sentence. The solutions proposed by the Finance Ministry are lame and partial. They would leave the safety net with too many large holes through which poor, older women would fall.
We will not allow them to be abandoned, and we’ll continue to fight until a real, comprehensive solution is found that won’t leave them by the wayside. And if, during that fight, Shtrasler’s notorious sensitivity to violations of equality is hurt, we’ll have to live with that.
The writer is a Knesset member and chairwoman of the Meretz party