Where have British women over 65 gone?

While British media is focusing on how the pandemic will affect the youth, those most vulnerable – elderly women – are forgotten.

A resident looks out of her bedroom window at Fremantle Trust care home, amid the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Princes Risborough, Britain, May 5, 2020 [Eddie Keogh/Reuters]

Older people, who rarely make front-page news, received a lot of media attention in the pandemic’s wake in the United Kingdom. Their many vulnerabilities as well as the governmental debacle of transforming care homes into killing fields by transferring infected older people to these homes were incessantly discussed.

Recently, however, the plight of older people has been eclipsed by an increasing emphasis on the growing economic crisis. Media coverage has focused on how young adults – those between the ages of 16 and 24 – are most at risk of being affected by the pandemic’s long-term economic consequences. This shift marks the return of older people’s exclusion from the public agenda, even as this group also suffers from the economic crisis.

The media has failed, for example, to account for nearly 11 percent of those aged 65 and above who have already lost their jobs as the furlough scheme comes to an end in October. And hardly any news articles mention that older women are likely to be the majority of this group of newly unemployed.

Decades of feminist political economy research has shown how women have been systematically penalised by the UK pension system, which has failed to account for women’s fragmented work histories as a result of lifetime caring responsibilities and the gender pay gap in employment. So, while women are more likely to live longer than men, older women are also more likely to be living in poverty.

Moreover, recent changes to the pension system have fallen short on their promise to tackle gender inequality, with ever-growing numbers of women facing pension poverty. Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that more than 20 percent of female pensioners – primarily non-white and single – lived in poverty between 2018 and 2019.

But we rarely hear about the rising poverty among older women in the media. Rather, older women are almost always portrayed as self-sufficient individuals taking responsibility for their livelihood, health and wellbeing. This is even more obvious when looking at the portrayal of older women in popular culture. Just think about Hollywood movies such as Finding Your Feet (2017), TV series like Netflix’s Grace and Frankie, iconic ageing celebrities such as Judy Dench and Helen Mirren featured in British Vogue and other mainstream magazines, and Instagram influencers like fashion entrepreneurs Sara Jane Adams or Nikki Redcliffe.

Such idealised older women in the so-called “third age” are increasingly being depicted as competent, lively and enthusiastic “go-getters”, who experience life as adventurous and meaningful.

The problem is that this blinkered construal of older women as self-reliant and resilient has also informed UK social policies over the past 10 years. In addition to raising the pension age to 66, the roll-out of government programmes such as Fuller Working Lives has encouraged older women to support flex work and flex retirement, namely, to shift careers and/or work in a number of different part-time jobs even after they retire.

Similarly, public-private initiatives such as the Women’s Business Council have been set up to encourage older women to become entrepreneurs by upgrading their professional skills and making a “fresh start”. The goal is to have ageing women, who have already worked close to half a century but are still poor, maintain their economic productivity.

Such draconian policies are elided by a cultural narrative that casts older women as invariably upbeat and positive, depicting women’s third act as an opportunity to begin new projects, while focusing on happiness and self-realisation.

There are then striking discrepancies between the way ageing women are celebrated in the media and the much starker reality on the ground. This is far from incidental. The endlessly positive discourses around ageing are meant to overshadow the government’s continued neglect of older people.

Appearing at a moment in which 84 percent of care homes in the UK have been privatised and are poorly operated by mainly for-profit providers, the endlessly upbeat representations help to normalise the dismantlement of welfare infrastructures established to support and care for ageing people. Hence, the erasure of the financial implications of the current crisis on people older than 65 must be understood as yet further evidence of their neglect by the neoliberal state.

Ultimately, older women today are made visible in the media to entertain but are made invisible as human beings entitled to care provided by the state. They are celebrated only when they demand nothing.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.