The Conversation is running a series, Class in Australia, to identify, illuminate and debate its many manifestations. Here, Veronica Sheen discusses how insecure jobs can cause women in midlife to tumble out of the middle class.
My research on midlife women in insecure jobs reveals how people who once would have been considered “middle class” lose this broadly defined social status. It gives an insight into what this means for their social and economic situation – social class – in later life.
Trajectories out of the middle class
The main trajectory involved losing a long-term permanent job after the age of 40. The women told of the effects in their workplaces of factors – including downsizing, work intensification, casualisation, credentialism and off-shoring – that led to their job loss.
After 40, due to a combination of age discrimination and scarcity of full-time, permanent jobs, they found it very difficult to find an equivalent-level job despite good education and skilled employment histories.
Stephanie, 49, explains what happened after leaving a permanent public sector job:
I was pretty burnt out. I was always expecting to get some part-time work and, having been working for a long time, I actually thought I had some transferable skills that would be useful in a whole lot of areas, but it was really hard trying to find some work.
The pathway then for Stephanie was into casual and sometimes fixed-term employment in administration. This was interspersed with spells of unemployment – a typical scenario for many.
Another trajectory involved leaving a permanent job in the late 20s or early 30s to raise and care for children. This may have meant dependence on a husband’s income from a “good job", with some women continuing in part-time, casual employment to supplement household income.
In a number of cases, however, the husband’s income was then eroded by business failure or retrenchment, or by disability. This meant an exit from the middle class for the household. It placed more pressure on the woman’s employment which, as part-time and insecure, could not compensate for the loss of the male job.
The other major trajectory out of the middle class was through divorce or separation. As well as loss of the husband’s income, this meant becoming a sole parent and provider for the household.
For some, this change motivated a move out of permanent full-time work because it was too difficult to balance the job and additional caring. Barbara, who cared for her teenage son with a disability while working casually as a security officer, told me:
I often think that the government job I had, I should have stayed there. It was just better. But there was pressure from my mum, pressure from my son’s father, ‘You’re selfish going to work and leaving your son in crèche.'
The problem for women who had left permanent jobs in earlier periods arose in their 40s or 50s after their children were more independent and they wanted to return to permanent work. There was no pathway back. The doors to a middle-class life had closed behind them.
The loss of the future tense
Much can be said about the eviction from the middle class. It is partly about loss of the steady pay cheque maybe even sending you to the edge of poverty. It may also involve social exclusion.
However, my interviews suggested it goes deeper than that. I wished to probe how study participants saw their future unfolding. The subject proved highly sensitive and was glossed over or avoided.
Maureen’s words summed up a general feeling among the women:
If I thought about all that now I think I would end up in the loony bin.
In the 1990s, sociologist Pierre Bourdieu understood this crisis, writing in his essay Job Insecurity Is Everywhere Now that insecurity “destructures” existence for those affected:
It makes the whole future uncertain and prevents all rational anticipation and basic belief and hope in the future.
If a person is struggling to make ends meet day to day, they have little capacity to make plans to undertake a desired activity, or to make some kind of investment with a view to a future gain. Social indicators are helpful in documenting major areas of poverty, deprivation and social exclusion.
In my study, the women in precarious jobs were just managing to get by on a frugal “no frills” basis. This did not allow any medium to longer-term planning or investments.
In his book The Precariat, economist Guy Standing makes a useful point that a precarious job may lift an individual over the official poverty line such that she is in a state of “near poverty”. But it is still a fraught situation.
The women’s insecure circumstances provided no platform for reaching out to a future life as they struggled to stay balanced on the ledge in the present. This was in part a result of constrained material circumstances. In part, though, it was because fear and uncertainty permeated their lives.
Perhaps ultimately that is the privilege of middle-class status. You have a hold on your future.
The impact in later life
By midlife, choices and time frames for transitions to a different life are more constrained. Women in the study reported entrapment in low-paid and precarious work. They spoke of the difficulties of finding their way into better employment that could reinstate their grasp on the future.
Given the constraints they faced in their 40s and 50s, I thought many of the women would face hardship in old age. They were unable to contribute enough to superannuation or make savings, which exarcerbated an already disadvantageous position. A few faced poverty and uncertainty with housing. Many of the precarious jobs were difficult and unsustainable, with some posing mental and physical health risks.
It is possible that the stage is being set for the emergence of significant new inequalities in the older population. On the one hand are groups of older people who have been been able to weather adverse and rapidly changing labour market conditions relatively well. They will form a well-to-do aged middle class. They can really retire when they wish and when they can afford to.
On the other hand are those who have experienced the full brunt of changes in the world of work with too little social protection to mitigate these effects. They will form an aged underclass - especially if they have had a long period of unemployment and difficult jobs prior to qualifying for an age pension at 67 or older.
Some groups of women, including women who have been sole parents and older single women, are very exposed to high levels of social disadvantage in later life. Good jobs are particularly important for these women in midlife until retirement to ensure they have the opportunity of ageing with dignity in accordance with community standards.
Ironically, the jobs they are entrapped in by midlife give the least promise of viability to keep working in until 67 or even later as Joe Hockey suggests we should.
Implications of policy neglect
Public policy has major deficiencies in relation to helping people in midlife make transitions into new, more sustainable occupations. With a rapidly changing labour market, much more focus is needed on opening pathways into decent jobs at later stages of life. This is especially important in view of the pressures on people to keep working well into their 60s.
Many women in the study said they could not afford to undertake the retraining they needed for better jobs. They could not afford to forgo the income they received from whatever employment they had, nor could they afford the fees and costs of training courses. No public support was available for them. Some were also sceptical whether retraining would be enough to compensate for the age discrimination they faced.
Of course, retraining is no panacea when the availability of good jobs is in long-term decline. Ultimately, what would help midlife women and men in low-paid, insecure jobs is an increase in “middle class” jobs.
See the other instalments of the series Class in Australia here.