We’ve all heard about the ageing population. But if you’re like me, you might view it as something off in the future that you don’t need to worry about now.
In my mind at least, the ageing population is mentally filed under “hypothetical problems of the future”, much like autonomous robots that could eventually kill me.
But the fact of the matter is that the ageing population is going to radically affect how my career plays out – for good and bad. And if we don’t prepare for these changes, even as young women, we could be left seriously vulnerable.
Here are five ways that the ageing population is likely to affect women’s careers.
1. More women will disrupt their careers to care for elderly parents.
Already, caring for dependants is a key reason why women have more disrupted careers than men. By reducing their workload to care for elderly parents, women are less able to make ends meet both in the short-term and the long-term, where they retire with less savings and superannuation.
This problem will grow as the number of elderly parents increases, while the number of children caring for them shrinks. Australian women make up 70 per cent of primary carers for parents. And yet women are the least equipped to reduce their work hours, as they have 50% less super and are paid 18% less for the same work as men
To fix this, we need to reform the pay and super gap to make sure women are financially equipped to care for elderly relatives. Given there’s no guarantee this will happen, young women like me will need to prepare our finances.
But we shouldn’t have to: it shouldn’t fall solely to women to sacrifice continuity in our careers for caring responsibilities. Men should share the burden, which means we need more men entering part-time work when caring duties arise. Male-dominated industries and roles are typically full-time positions, but this may need to change.
2. Women will have to retire much later in life.
As the demand for the old-age pension grows, governments will push Australians to retire later. Because women have less super and savings, they’re more reliant on the pension to retire than men. Single women are particularly vulnerable, with 70% relying on the pension.
But here’s the problem: employers don’t want older women in their businesses. Age-discrimination is a massive issue for women over fifty, despite their wealth of experience and skills. Compounding things, the wage gap is higher between men and women over 50 than any other age group.
Longer careers also mean we’ll need more education and training to keep up as workplaces change and evolve. If employers or government fail to provide this support, we will need to self-fund ongoing education – and we all know that adult education isn’t cheap. Hopefully, society will invest in older female workers, to fill the labour supply shortage that the ageing population will create.
3. Men will retire from positions of power, which may open the door for more women in leadership.
There may be a glimmer of opportunity here, amid the doom and gloom. As the typically male guard of senior management retire, a younger generation will hop into their shoes. This creates a great opportunity for more women to step up – but nothing will change unless we first dismantle the structures that prevent women from progressing up the career ladder.
Through schemes like paid parental leave, affordable childcare, and mentoring and support, we can prepare women for greater representation in the next generation of leaders.
4. There will be more part-time roles, to accommodate older workers.
As governments strive to keep workers in the workforce for longer, this will likely require more part-time roles for older workers.
In some ways, this is good for women. As the workforce becomes more part-time, it becomes easier for women to work their careers around caring responsibilities. And as part-time work is normalised, part-time women will be seen as less of an anomaly.
But part-time work is typically less secure and frequently casualised. It offers less chance of promotion, less training and often lower pay. If the workforce moves towards part-time employment, we need to ensure these workers enjoy the same opportunities and entitlements as full-time employees.
5. Younger people will probably need to work harder (or smarter).
Governments would like to keep older Australians in the workforce for longer, but this doesn’t mean they’ll succeed. The Liberal government faced serious electoral backlash when they announced their policy of raising the retirement age to 70 (which remains on the table). By the sheer fact that there’s so many of them, boomers represent the largest chunk of voters. It’s very possible that raising the retirement age might be so unpopular that it never eventuates.
But if boomers vacate the workplace in droves, there’ll be a big hole in the labour supply. There’ll also be less government revenue to support their retirement, because there’re fewer workers paying taxes.
There’re a few options here, none of which are appealing. Either, those remaining in the workforce work longer hours, to achieve the same productivity with fewer workers. Or, governments cut spending. Longer working hours is never good news for working women. And spending cuts hurt women the most, as we are most vulnerable to disadvantage.
But here are a couple of alternatives: we can explore ways of reforming the tax system, equitably, to create more revenue. Or, we can invest in ways to make the remaining workforce more productive without increasing work hours. Basically, this requires investment in education.
Whichever path we take, it’s clear that governments need to make major changes, to ensure that women’s careers aren’t a casualty in the ageing of Australia. And whatever our age, we must do what we can to prepare, whether that’s securing our finances or agitating for reform.