The implications for women of the world’s rapidly ageing population are profound. The gender inequalities they have experienced throughout their lives cumulate and become more visible as they grow older.
Australia lags behind most other developed countries when it comes to the economic and social well-being of people over 60. While the health status of older Australians is very good (fifth), we rank 17th overall and 67th for income security on a list of 96 countries.
The numbers are even more alarming for Australian women. In 2011, 34% of single women over 60 were in permanent income poverty, compared to 29% of single men and 24% of couples.
Higher incidences of poverty among older women are rooted in their employment histories, which have often been disrupted and part-time. By age 65, women retire on average with about one-third of the superannuation that men accrue. Government benefits account for 60% of their income.
In a recent study we examined the social and economic disadvantages and vulnerabilities confronting women as they grow older. The study identified a need for innovative strategies and programs to improve older women’s quality of life.
A complex mix of circumstances, such as the casualisation of the workforce, the superannuation system and the prevalence of family violence, serve to discriminate against women across their lives.
Combined with unexpected events such as the loss of employment, illness and injury, family breakdown and crisis related to divorce and widowhood, these elements can threaten older women’s access to secure, affordable housing and present other serious challenges in both the short and longer term.
New and innovative solutions are required to solve the age-old problem of gender inequality. While there has been a resurgence of interest in raising awareness and creating social change, we need to embrace new ways of thinking for future strategies to effectively tackle the disadvantage accumulated over a woman’s lifespan.
What can be done?
Participants in our research shared innovative ideas. These included:
creative housing models that forge relationships between land and housing developers and all levels of government
private rental housing initiatives
partnerships with industry to create employment and lifelong learning opportunities for older women
educational programs targeting young women in the first instance, focused on enhancing financial literacy and expertise.
Ideas about reactivating and strengthening existing women’s networks in business, service provision, advocacy, planning and policy also featured highly.
Cross-sector collaborations and conversations are fundamental not only to planning, but also for providing resources and support for older women, and for advocacy and policy development in key areas that relate to older women’s quality of life. Collaboration tackles the “silo” mentality of individual services that limits access to financial resources and a more expansive way of problem-solving.
Participants in our study supported the development of well-planned and adequately resourced enterprise hubs. These can draw on existing knowledge and experience to support entrepreneurship as a key innovation in tackling older women’s economic disadvantage.
Despite popular conception, the typical entrepreneur is much older than the revered likes of Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg were when they started out. It appears life experience serves entrepreneurs well. Seniors are the fastest-growing segment of entrepreneurs in Australia. Yet governments continue to target support for younger entrepreneurs and focus on retraining older workers so they can apply for yet another job.
Older women are keen to have opportunities to strengthen their economic security. However, their ongoing aspirations to be engaged in meaningful and financially rewarding careers or innovations are not yet a part of public discussion.
With increasing challenges for older people to find appropriate employment, creating opportunities for self-employment offers a significant growth area. It appears non-traditional players outside of service delivery and research are entering this field – such as banks, financial institutions and private consultancies.
Interview participants highlighted cross-sector collaboration through technological innovation as an important strategy for enhancing new forms of relevant and creative networking and working relationships for both organisations and older women alike.
Technology has the potential for mass mobilisation and advocacy on an unprecedented scale. This potential needs to be harnessed.
The marginal position of women over 55, particularly those who lack economic security, employment and secure housing, is a neglected area in terms of research, policy development and service delivery. What would happen if we put women, including older women, at the centre of our policy thinking and processes?
Susan Feldman will be chairing a session, Spaces of Power, at the Good Shepherd Women’s Policy Forum – Power to Persuade conference on August 16, 2016, in Melbourne.