Sandwiched between grandkids and elderly parents: The real reason older women are staying at work | Women's Agenda

Sandwiched between grandkids and elderly parents: The real reason older women are staying at work

An analysis of labour force participation in Australia has revealed the astounding fact that the number of women over the age of 60 clinging to work has jumped 300% in just 20 years. That’s a very, very big jump.

The same report showed, to break it down even further, that 45% of women aged 60-64 were in the labour force in 2013, up from just 15.2% in 1993 and for women aged 55-59, that jump was from 36.8% to a massive 65.3%.

Of course, there are good reasons for this. Lots of learned, intellectual, think-tank type of reasons. My own, slightly less-scholarly research, has uncovered the real reason that mature age women are clinging to their roles in the workforce. The real reason they are hanging on for dear life to their jobs and their desks, refusing to retire gracefully.

Why? Because they are sandwiched and they’re scared. They’ve got grandchildren and very old parents.  And that’s a whole lot of babysitting!

The problem is, nobody wants to talk about it. In my demographic those who feel this way are frightened to talk about it. Most of us are too terrified of a public, worse still a familial, backlash if we come clean. We fear an outpouring of derision and finger-pointing not seen since the Salem witch trials of 1692.

But before I break this great taboo first let’s look at the academic data.

According to a report in The Australian newspaper, one of the Professors behind the 20 year analysis, Mark Wooden, of the Melbourne Institute of Applied Social and Economic Research, puts the jump in older women staying on and on in the workforce down to numerous financial, social and career profile changes

He cited factors like the notion that retirement has become more fluid, that we now feel able to create more pathways to transition to retirement – part-time or casual jobs. That we are living longer and being concerned about having enough savings and superannuation.  Perhaps it is even a sign of a cultural shift in favour of older workers.  All of which sounded absolutely plausible to me.

What disappointed me, though, was that nowhere in the breakdown of the analysis I read, did I see hide nor hair of what my own research shows. Namely – and I am shaking with the sheer sacrilege involved in putting this into type – it is just easier to go to work and to stay at work than to be constantly available/on call to meet the myriad needs of the very young and the very old, much-loved family members though they are, at precisely the time when you thought a little time of your own was on the cards.

Yes, a lot of us are terrified of being sandwiched between requests to babysit our grandchildren and requests to care for our elderly/infirm parents

We are terrified of not having a legitimate, convenient reason to say no, of becoming the invisible women back home, juggling the many needs of the under fives and the over-85s, being judged and found wanting, not for the first time in our lives, as not quite involved enough, not quite available enough, not quite self-sacrificing enough. Back in the land of mashed banana and nappies, but this time around trying to differentiate between the Huggies and the Depend. Give us strength!

I know the joy of grandchildren, of a love even my imagination could not have done justice to. And I know the special sense of loss, the dealing with a heartbreaking kind of protracted disappearance, the gradual decay of one’s own ageing parents brings.

I waited with baited breath for the arrival of the former, the grandchildren, and I watch with a sense of dismay and grief for the departure of the latter, the elderly parents. And I know I am not alone.

Right across this country, there are women just like me, loving Nannas all, wanting to be there for their daughters and their sons, ultimately for their grandchildren, to ease the burden of child care costs and to provide, as often as possible, the kind of care they believe a crèche cannot. And, yes, to experience that peculiarly exquisite love a new generation brings.

And sandwiched as we are, we women in or nearing our sixties, we are catering for the myriad needs of our elderly as well. In our spare time. Shopping for the infirm, washing, ironing, airing linen, undertaking their mundane tasks now too hard; visiting doctors, filling scripts, folding and unfolding walking frames, answering questions asked a hundred times an hour, a billion times a day. Always slowly, patience so often at an ebb. Give us strength!

And, as unscholarly as it may sound, this is the real reason why so many women are clinging on to work for longer. I would bet my life on it.

For if you have been on that hurdy gurdy once before in your life, if you remember only too well being that young woman, putting career on hold, stepping back, however willingly or with whatever amount of self-fulfilment into the mothering role, it is often extremely difficult to consider doing it all again in your late fifties and into your sixties. To consider disappearing yourself once more, defining yourself by your Nanna-dom this time, even as it helps your child or their partner keep their own identity/career/cash flow going. 

This is even harder to manage, to even countenance, when it is combined with the need to scoot from being Nanna to caring for Nanna. And Pa. And their own special, incessant demands, made because they trust you and there is nobody else and they are afraid.

Women like me, mature-aged Dutiful-Daughters-Become-Loving-Nannas, we are now holding onto to our jobs well into our sixties for a host of reasons, many of them based in sound academic and economic principles. And a lot of us are doing it out of fear, too.

We are afraid that we cannot be all things to all people more than once around the rodeo that is a woman’s life. We are afraid that we will end up defined as much by our caretaking role in society in our latter years as we were in our early ones.

But mainly we are afraid that if we were to say any of this out loud we would hurt the ones we love most, bring the finger-pointing witch hunters to our own doors. We are afraid of becoming the charcoaled, Salem-style meat in the proverbial sandwich.

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