A rare study conducted by three universities in Australia disproved the long-held assumptions that women without partners or children have barrier-less career trajectories and better retirement savings than married or partnered people with children.
The study examines the economic security of single older women without children and revealed that two-thirds of study participants faced unintended career interruptions regardless of not having children.
Researchers from the University of Sydney, the University of NSW and Curtin University worked together to publish the report, Security in old age for older single women without children, which was released this week.
The findings revealed that women without partners and children over 45 were likelier to bear caring duties for ageing family members or members with a disability than any other group in their age cohort, such as people with partners, people with children, or men. It also found that being without a partner for women imposed heavier financial strains because costs cannot be shared.
Professor Myra Hamilton led the study, which was funded by Certified Practicing Accountants of Australia. She told SMH that this report is the first of its kind to take a comprehensive look at the experience of single, older women without children.
“We found that these women are more likely to have career interruptions later in life – in their 50s or 60s – as they take on caring responsibilities for elderly parents,” she said. “Many [women] didn’t have the disposable income to save, and this limited their opportunities to add to their super and enter the housing market and lead to more frequent experiences of financial hardship,”
Professor Hamilton is the Associate Professor from the University of Sydney Business School and Principal Research Fellow at the ARC Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing Research.
She led a team which analysed national data from the national Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey, primarily looking at 4000 women aged 45 and older who were single without children. Additionally, they conducted phone interviews with accountants and financial planners about the support provided to the women in this group.
Professor Helen Hodgson from Curtin University, a co-author of the report, told SMH that the leading concern for older women without partners was acquiring secured accomodation.
“Although they may take home a higher pay cheque than their married co-workers there is little left to save after they have paid their rent or mortgage,” she said.
“Older single women without children face specific issues in planning for their needs late in life, with limited support networks. Financial advisors and aged care advocates have a major role in providing them with appropriate advice and support.”
Despite many participants reporting increased earning capacity early in their careers due to a lack of parental duties, it did not mean they secured better financial security later in their lives. Professor Hamilton said many participants found themselves without disposable incomes.
“While not having children increased their earning capacity, being single meant they could not benefit from sharing their financial burdens with a partner,” she said. “Therefore, many didn’t have the disposable income to save, and this limited their opportunities to add to their super and enter the housing market and lead to more frequent experiences of financial hardship.”
“We spoke to many women who said they were expected to stay back late to finish work when other employees had to leave to pick up kids from school or asked to not take annual leave over school holidays,” Professor Myra Hamilton added.
“Yet our research shows older single women without children are the most likely cohort to have other care responsibilities. This can place them under excessive pressure that affects their work-life balance.”
Dr Jane Rennie, CPA Australia General Manager External Affairs, said more needs to be done to assist the women in this group.
“Tailoring financial advice to clients, their goals and life stages is critical to helping them achieve financial security,” she said. “The economic turmoil created by COVID-19 has decimated the incomes and savings of many Australians. As an economically vulnerable cohort, single, older women may need additional support to achieve an adequate retirement. This report provides valuable insights for accountants and other professional advisers as they design strategies for these clients.”
So what do the researchers think needs to be done?
The report includes a host of policy recommendations, including a call for better education for employers to put anti-discrimination legislation into practice.
“Anti-discrimination legislation should be amended to make clear that discrimination on the basis of having family responsibilities or not having family responsibilities is unlawful,” they wrote in the report. “Better education for employers should include information about discrimination on the basis of not having family responsibilities, as well as on the basis of gender and age.”
More secure and affordable housing options and better access to financial products and services are also critical for older women.
“Commonwealth Rent Assistance should be reviewed, with the rates increased, and support should be made available to assist homeowners who are at risk of falling behind on their mortgage,” they wrote. “This should include opportunities to refinance loans.”
And services should be “delivered through multiple access points and formats, including digital, but also hard copy and face-to-face.”
“The formal documentation required in financial advice should be translatable to a user-friendly, accessible format.”
The report comes as financial rights campaigners warn of the government’s bid to loosen lines of credit that may end up making financial abuse more frequent and severe. It also comes after the National Foundation of Australian Women’s Gender Lens on the Budget report, which concluded that the latest budget was a missed opportunity to pursue positive structural reform for women.
Last month, Senator Jenny McAllister pointed out that the Women’s Economic Security Statement had not been printed out in glossy paper or placed alongside other budget papers during the budget media lock-up.
“My concern is that this looks like an afterthought,” McAllister had said. “It was not printed, it wasn’t prioritised.”
Last week, Jane Caro penned an Op Ed in The Guardian, where she described the outlook for older women in Australia as “dire – but no one seems to care.”
“[Older women] confide in me their terror of homelessness and the inescapability of their poverty,” she wrong. “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.”
“Why does no one seem to care?” she concludes. “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?”