Swedish retirees demand fairer pensions for women

Sweden - Stockholm's Old Town
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“Old ladies need more money!” a group of grey-haired women chants in front of Sweden’s parliament. It’s part of their recurring protest against the country’s pension system.

During the warmer months, members of the red-hatted Tantpatrullen (The Old Lady Patrol) gather every Thursday, right across from Sweden’s parliament. They have just begun their 2023 protest season.

In a country that prides itself on being a champion of feminism and gender equality, the association of retired women is calling for an increase in pensions for women. Women, they say, are penalised by a system that favours people with high salaries who work well into their sixties.

Brit Rundberg, co-founder of the Tantpatrullen, told Agence France-Presse (AFP):

The pension system is supposedly neutral but men’s and women’s lives are not neutral.

In Sweden, the average gap between men’s and women’s pensions is 28%. This is the largest among the Nordic countries, according to a recent study by the inter-parliamentary Nordic Council.

Women pensioners on average receive 17,000 kronor (£1,321) before tax a month. Meanwhile, men get an average of 24,200, according to the Swedish Pensions Agency.

Read on...

Jenny Andersson, an author of the Nordic Council study, said:

Women’s pensions are much lower compared to men’s because women have lower salaries but also because they do a lot more unpaid work and therefore they work more part-time.

The gap has led some banks to advise clients to share childcare and parental leave. Some have even suggested transferring part of the pension to the lower-earning partner.

‘We have to talk about it’

The ‘patrol’ first took to the streets to demonstrate in 2014. They were outraged that the plight of retired women remained a non-issue in the middle of an election campaign.

Rundberg said:

We thought ‘No-one is talking about this! We have to talk about it.’ So that’s how we started.

In the 1990s, Sweden shifted to more privatised systems. In 1999, it introduced a new system which was partly based on lifetime earnings and also accounted for funds invested in markets.

At the time of retirement, the sum contributed by the employee is added to that invested in the financial markets. This is then divided by the number of years left to live, based on average life expectancy.

The earlier one retires, the more the amount will be divided. Thus, the lower the pension will be.

Women who have had tough, full-time jobs, or who have taken care of children, “need to stay longer in the workforce to get only a decent pension”. This was according to Joel Stade, a pensions expert at the Swedish National Pensioners’ Organisation PRO, which has some 270,000 members.

Sweden has one of the highest rates of older people in the workforce. Women retire at an average age of 64.9, almost a year earlier than men (65.8).

Swedish women are also more likely to work in the public sector, within healthcare, education and childcare, where salaries tend to be lower than the private sector.

At risk of poverty

According to Eurostat, 17.2% of women pensioners in Sweden are at risk of poverty. This is compared to only 9% of men.

In addition, 43% of women receive just the minimum guaranteed pension. This is paid to those who have only a small additional pension or none at all, according to the Nordic Council. The minimum guaranteed pension amounted to 10,631 kronor per month in 2021.

Andersson believes that Sweden should take inspiration from Nordic neighbours Denmark and Iceland. These countries pay a higher minimum pension and take less account of the level of salary earned before retirement. As a result, the gender gap is lower – 8% in Denmark and 5% in Iceland.

However, despite criticism and renewed calls for change as inflation has soared, reform in Sweden currently seems a long way off.

The pension working group in the national parliament doesn’t include members of the far-right Sweden Democrats (SD). SD was absent from parliament at the time of the 1999 reform, but it has now grown to become the country’s second-largest party. Without it at the table, prospects of change in the next few years appear dim.

Additional reporting via Agence France-Presse

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons/ Michael Cavern, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, resized to 770*403 

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