The nightmare that’s been waiting to hit Australian women

This article is authored by Jenna Price and is originally published by The Age.

It isn’t very often that I start crying midway through an interview. I’ve interviewed Marian Baird, professor of gender and employment relations at the University of Sydney, so many times over the years. But those first interviews were always about how women could get back into the workforce after the babies arrived; and then, later, why and how childcare should be an important consideration for employers. I thought my days of writing about discrimination against women at work were more or less over. Battle for parental leave won. Carers leave, tick. Family violence leave, developing. The right to return to your old job, yep. Sexual harassment finally a serious workplace issue.

But Australian women have just been hit with another crisis – and Baird describes it as the nightmare that’s been waiting to happen. These women over 45 are finding themselves in the workforce for much longer than their mothers – yet the workforce has done absolutely nothing to accommodate them.

They want to look after their parents. They are desperately keen to look after their grandchildren (and recall how hard it was when they needed childcare). They must look after their own health and welfare if all this is going to happen. And if those pressures aren’t enough, we now find that over 300,000 women between the ages of 45 and 64 have multiple jobs in order to meet all these needs. And needs they are. This is not discretionary work. It’s enough to make anybody cry.

The nitty gritty of these lives under pressure will soon be revealed. Baird is about to release the preliminary results from a national benchmarking survey of mature workers in Australia. It’s the result of a collaboration between the University of Sydney and Curtin. She says the figures show older women workers are being smashed by their range of responsibilities. And when I say older, I mean women over 45. That’s not even older in the big scheme of things, when, Gaia willing, we will easily get to 90.

Baird’s figures are depressing – nearly 70 per cent of the women in the survey say they feel considerable financial pressure to continue working. Graham Cooke of says that in its data, women are more likely to report feeling financially stressed by their mortgage than men. Let’s not even ask women how they feel about their superannuation. The National Foundation for Australian Women’s Marie Coleman tells me women tend to be terrified that they haven’t got anything like enough superannuation. “They’ve had lower incomes and they have been the people taking time out for caring.”

Women may well enjoy their jobs but they are also compelled to work by their mortgages, their future financial security (as we should describe super) and by their family responsibilities. Their conscience also encourages them to want to assist their offspring. Depressingly, the family responsibilities for this group of women are still not shared with their partners. Never mind cleaning the toilet – more women spend time each and every week, some well over 10 hours, caring for family members. When the numbers are crunched, Baird expects to see the exact same reluctance we see from men when it comes to care of their children extends to care of their parents.

And older women who’ve fought the battles for parental leave and carers leave are finding themselves at a whole new frontier for workers’ rights – while also frightened of asking for any consideration at work in case it makes them seem needy.

For some of us, those early battles in our working lives have scarred us. We’ve all got a story to tell of an employer who tried to make our lives even harder than they were. But we are the first sandwich generation, responsible for bringing up children and caring for parents, the first women to deal with careers in our 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s. The first generation where we thought our superannuation would look after us in our old age. We didn’t think we would be working in our old age. And those of us working in tough physical jobs thought we’d get the aged pension but the age of eligibility keeps getting hiked up.

The growth in employment of women over 50 is far greater than the growth in employment of young women with children; and we know that Australians aged 55 plus are the fastest growing sector of our workforce. But we also know that finding jobs with flexibility is nearly impossible. Yes, the Fair Work Act gives us all the right to ask for flexible work but it doesn’t prevent our bosses from thinking we are difficult or even from saying no. That’s why some older workers refuse to talk about their needs.

Some of those older workers flooding the market are also finding it hard to get work. That’s due to an employer’s mindset. Baird’s research shows us mature workers tend to be higher in positive characteristics: committed, loyal, agreeable, emotionally stable – but around half of the women surveyed say they’ve thought about giving up work. They like their jobs, some even love their jobs. But employers, it’s clear, don’t love and appreciate them in return.

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