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The outlook for older women in Australia is dire – but no one seems to care

Jane Caro
·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Alan Porritt/AAP</span>
Photograph: Alan Porritt/AAP

Every time I speak up publicly about the very real plight facing older women in Australia – as I did on last week’s Q&A - I get inundated with messages on social media. But virtually all of those messages are from other older women. They confide in me their terror of homelessness and the inescapability of their poverty. They tell me of the indignities and humiliations they suffer at the hands of a punitive and indifferent welfare system, and they whisper dark stories of domestic violence, neglected health and isolation. These women are my peers (I am 63). They are the girls I went to school with, my sisters, neighbours, cousins and friends. We all started out with the same hopes and optimism about our future but, for far too many women of my generation, those hopes have turned to ashes.

Covid-19 has made everything worse in all sorts of ways, but it holds particular perils for those of us who are older. There are the losses that cannot be helped – the increase in isolation, the loss of contact with grandchildren and other relatives, and the need to take greater precautions when we venture out – but that is not the worst of it. Covid-19 has both unveiled and accelerated the discrimination and systemic burdens that make women more vulnerable to poverty throughout their lives. A vulnerability that snowballs as we age.

Related: Between Covid, climate change and the budget, no wonder women are rethinking having babies | Jane Caro

Prior to Covid, women over 55 were already the fastest growing group among the homeless. Research released in August estimated that 400,000 women over the age of 45 currently face this fate. Women who are in the private rental market, who are not employed full time and are a sole parent have a 64% risk of losing the roof over their head. If they have been homeless before, this risk increases to a staggering 83%! These figures are grim, but has anyone noticed? Is there an outcry? Does anyone – apart from the women themselves - actually care?

Education used to be one of feminism’s good news stories. Australian women are among the best educated in the world. However, thanks to Covid, even this may be changing. There has been a drastic fall in university enrolments by women and girls – 86,000 fewer in 2020. That’s not just hopes, dreams and talent going up in smoke, that’s a lifetime of increased earning capacity lost. Male enrolments have fallen too, but at a far lower rate. No doubt female aspirations have not been helped by the federal government’s bizarre decision to price degrees popular with women students beyond reach. And, despite the rhetoric, many women who dreamt of studying the humanities haven’t gone into Stem. It seems many have given up the idea of attending university at all.

Younger women are now facing at least as high a risk of a desperately poor old age as their mothers and grandmothers did

The recent budget, touted as all about jobs, did little or nothing to help. It did nothing to support women’s employment, despite women workers losing more hours of paid work than men. In September, the ABS estimated that 61% of all jobs lost since February were lost by women, and only a third of the jobs that have returned have gone to women. Lockdowns and working from home has seen many women experience a huge increase in their hours of unpaid work which, as it always does, impinges on their ability to return to full-time employment. When criticised for ignoring the plight of women in the recent budget, the government loftily claimed it was “gender-blind”, as if not noticing how much women were struggling was somehow a virtue.

Not “seeing” women is one thing, but deliberate policy that hobbles the ability of women to enter and stay in the paid work force is quite another. The decision to make early childhood educators – overwhelmingly female and low paid – the first (and so far, only) group to lose jobkeeper support, seems designed to hurt working women. Not just those employed by childcare centres, but every person (mostly women) who relies on childcare to keep their job. The government also quickly reinstated the pre-Covid cost of childcare, already the fourth most expensive in the world, re-establishing yet another barrier stopping women returning to the workforce after they have had children, particularly full time.

The decision to allow Australians early access to their super to help tide them over has also been particularly disastrous for women. They currently retire with an average of half the super of men and one third of women retire with no super at all. Industry experts are already sounding the alarm that this will condemn further generations of women to a poverty-stricken old age.

Related: There are thousands of very credible women across Australia fighting for equal rights | Emma Dawson

To spell it out for those at the back, this matters because if you are forced into casual, part-time, low-paid work – and women make up almost 70% of part-time workers in Australia – if you come in and out of the workforce due to caring and domestic duties, if you are the last hired and first fired after you turn 50, you accumulate less super. The sexism, discrimination and obstacles compound until, according to this year’s Measure for Measure Report, 60% of older single women (never married, divorced, widowed) rely on the full age pension and half of them live in permanent income poverty. In other words, your reward for a lifetime of putting other people’s needs ahead of your own is very likely an old age of poverty and sleeping rough.

I don’t want to believe our government is using the pandemic to shove women, especially mothers, back into the kitchen and back into financial dependence of their husbands, I really don’t. But when you put it all together, it’s hard not to reach that conclusion. Whether this is part of an ideological belief that women should be at home, looking after the kids, or just an inability to see or care about the fate of 51% of the population, the long-term consequences for the current generation of women are dire. Whether they want to think about it or not, younger women are now facing at least as high a risk of a desperately poor old age as their mothers and grandmothers did. Not thanks to Covid, but thanks to government policy.

Yet, according to polls, this is a very popular government, so I return to my opening question: why does no one seem to care? Surely we should be marching in the streets? Surely there should be daily questions in the House about why we are blithely casting our mothers, aunts and grandmothers (and soon, our sisters, daughters and wives) into penury as they age?

Why is it the only people who seem to notice are older women themselves?