Might This Be 'The Winter of Discontent #2' for WASPI Artists?

Carolyn Black, Artist Producer and writer based in Gloucestershire, considers the effects on women artists of the changes to the State Pension Age.

For many artists, both men and women, this may be the 'Winter of Discontent#2'. Not just because it is turning out to be an extremely cold winter, but because more people than ever can’t afford heating, in part due to the changing of the State Pension Age (SPA). And women born in the 1950s are not happy about it. To be clear, I have no doubt that men and women should be treated equally and that state pensions should begin at the same time for both. The issue that concerns me is taking one year of pension away from men is not comparable with making some women wait for another six years for their state pension. I can’t help wondering how many women artists are struggling due to government changes to the SPA. This is the timetable of how the changes have been implemented:

The Conservative government passed the Pensions Act 1995 that would raise the state pension age for women from 60 to 65, over the period 2010–2020. This would make the SPA for women the same as for men. In 2011, the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government passed another act, accelerating the timetable to 2018 and adjusting the qualifying age for men too, to 66 by October 2020. Many women feel there was not sufficient notice given.

What is evident is that women born in the 1950s are the worst hit, having their SPA pushed back by six years. I’m one of them. Campaigns like Women Against State Pension Inequality (WASPI) and #50swomen are seeking to negotiate a more staggered approach. WASPI is calling for fair pension arrangements for all, with a non-means-tested bridging pension, paid as a percentage of the full state pension and compensation to those already receiving their pension to cover the period between age 60 and their new SPA (1).

As an artist and producer, I’ve worked most of my life as a sole trader, paid by contracts to deliver for others, or on projects I have fundraised for myself. I have always worked in the not-for-profit sector as a freelancer and have rarely been part of a pension scheme. If I was, it was only temporary, short-term. I’ve never had sufficient money to set up a private one, but always kept my national insurance up to date and paid my tax dues.

I recently ran a drawing class for a U3A group (University of the Third Age), many of whom said they had first taken up art when they retired. It made me aware that, as an artist myself, I had been rather looking forward to returning to my practice, supported by my state pension. I felt a surge of jealousy, and a shiver of disappointment, that these people, many of whom were only months older than me, were able to do that, yet I couldn’t. Call it sour grapes if you like, but it hurt.

Anyone who has worked in the arts in any capacity is aware that fees have also dropped (or disappeared) for much art production in recent years, making it very hard now. Traditional art commissioners for the public realm, such as local authorities, academic institutions and other public bodies, have been hit so badly by austerity that they often don’t even employ anyone to deliver art programmes. Section 106 monies, that come with large developments, are often being used to patch up the holes in their budgets, gouged out by austerity.

As often happens, the stimulation for all this reflection on artist incomes, women and pensions, began via a conversation on social media. As someone who has endlessly campaigned for fair pay for artists, it is inevitable that any dialogue around SPA would make me wonder how hard these changes are impacting on artists. Here is a snippet of the Facebook dialogue, which began with another post where artists were discussing how artist fees have dropped dramatically in recent years:

Me: On top of people working in the arts taking a severe cut in fees, I’m one of the many women who, without any prior warning, has had my pension retracted for 6 years.

That’s over £40k in income that women only months older than me receive. Lucky them! As a freelancer I have no workplace pension. What, exactly, does the government think we can live on? With so many austerity cuts to funders and funded bodies, there are merely scraps left in the not-for-profit sector. The lowest paid work goes to graduates who need to pay off their student loans. Education should, in my mind, be state provided. Those with big loans are unlikely to ever own their own home. Those of us who paid out taxes and insurance will probably have to sell our homes to survive for 6 years until pension time.

This is when I doubt the Labour strap line, ‘more in common than divides us.’ The divide is too huge. Unbridgeable.

Sovay Berriman responded: Re student loads – they are horrendous but don’t have to be paid back until you reach a certain level of earning. I’ve yet to pay anything towards mine. [editorial note – this is very common, which is indicative of the low incomes people survive on].

The issue of home ownership is something that seems to affect anyone who wasn’t in the position to take out a mortgage before 1997. I certainly wasn’t in the position to then and haven’t, for a multitude of reasons, ever been able to, I chased other things. [editorial note – going to university as a mature student, the first in her family, to study fine art]. But now in my forties I realise, like many others, I’ll be most likely a lifelong renter. I say all this because sometimes in our concern over the young we forget that there’s loads of people of all ages who struggle. Like with your pension rip off.

The best thing we can do for the young is discourage them from going to uni until they’re sure it’s exactly what they want to do. Encourage them to take any ol job and understand the value of money. And, start to save for the future - could be spent on houses or holidays or children, whatever. But having some savings and not rushing into a pointless degree can help keep someone off the tragic treadmill we have created. (editorial note - Sovay’s now also trained as a plumber to create a more “financially secure” future for herself )

Me: Don't get me on the student thing... as a mature student in the 90s, I saw the intake double every year... no increases in space or tutors, just more students... milking them to fill the coffers... now the graduates carry the debt and are probably considered overqualified for the menial jobs... invigilators are no longer paid, replaced by volunteers... it's endless stuff... at least WASPI women are not trying to climb the slippery ladder, they have simply been shoved off the top! (humour = survival).

These conversations touch on all the raw spots for artists today – student debts; the cost of education; lack of opportunities; housing costs; low, or no, employment; the need to save for a future in the light of the rapid decline of the welfare state. The weather is bringing on quips about Snowmageddon. The above issues are the Armageddon for artists, and they really are not so funny.

We need to talk about these things more often, get them out in the open and stop feeling awkward about doing so. If anyone wishes to commission me to research this issue, get in touch, because it is a piece of work that needs doing urgently. And I have to work for six years more before I get the pension I paid my dues for.


Article by Carolyn Black

www.flowprojects.org.uk & www.carolynblackart.com

Carolyn is an Artist Producer and writer based in Gloucestershire.


Sovay Berriman is an artist based between Cornwall and London. www.sovayberriman.co.uk

She’ll be speaking as part of Spaced Out in April see https://www.artquest.org.uk/project/spaced-out/


(1) Read more at: https://www.thesouthernreporter.co.uk/news/waspi-women-in-new-push-for-spa-equality-fairness-1-4690098



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