The future of women’s ageing is crisis and cat food

April 27, 2015

By Emily Millane

27 April 2015

As well as superfoods, green smoothies and almond milk, the wellness industry also advocates the benefits of lean protein. A few more respectable sorts do as well.

Lean protein includes red meat, legumes and fish. Even tinned fish is acceptable, depending on the source, which is a good thing because tinned fish is the best a lot of Australian women will be able to afford in their old age.

The structural financial issues that women face earlier in their lives compound as they age. The situation is especially bleak for single women. Income and housing are two policy areas which bear this out.

Women earn less than men. They earn less at the start of their careers and they earn less as they move through them. A man working full-time earns 18.2% more than a woman working full time. At the management level the gap is 28.9% while for general managers and for other executives it is 27.5%.

And the gap between wages earned by men and women is getting bigger. Between November 2013 and May 2014 men’s salaries increased an average of $24.90 per week. Women’s increased by only $7.09. Women are also overrepresented in casual and part-time work and low-paying industries like aged care and nursing.

The gender income gap is compounded when women take time out of work to have children, the average time being 32 weeks. Compounding the situation further is when women stay out of the workforce beyond the period of maternity leave to care for children.

All of these factors combine to mean that women accumulate lower private savings for retirement than men. Even on the generous assumption that a woman who has had children returns to paid work until the age of 70, she will still only have 60% of the retirement savings of a man who works full time on an average wage.

In dollar terms this means she will retire with $516,000 while a man who works full-time and uninterrupted for 35 years, has $874,000.

The Asic Retirement Planner shows that the woman in the scenario above would have a combined pension and superannuation income of $42,000 per year until age 90. This is considered a “comfortable” retirement by the association of superannuation funds of Australia. But what if she retires earlier? Say, at age 60? Then her income is around $33,000 per year.

Consider then what her income would look like if other factors were present. What if she didn’t own her own home and had to pay rent? What if she outlived her life expectancy which is, after all, only an average?

Women, especially single older women who do not own their home, are at particular risk of homelessness. Women’s lower superannuation savings means that they are more likely to become wholly reliant on the age pension and therefore more susceptible to increases in private rents. Domestic violence is another factor which leads to housing dislocation.

Research has shown that the largest proportion of older women presenting with housing crisis in Australia have led conventional lives and rented while working and raising a family.

One woman in her 50s wrote to me about the constant state of anxiety she lives in about the prospect of losing her job. Between looking after the kids and paying the rent after leaving her abusive partner, there is no money to do further education to increase her chances of finding other work, let alone the time.

Women like this are without a political voice for various reasons, including time, resources and, interlinked with this, lack of influence. Not quite the same lobbying impact as Glencore or Google.

The impacts of an ageing society are often slow-burning and aren’t a sexy topic, most likely because ageing itself is not.

Ageing is especially unsexy for women, as the wellness industry knows too well. Analysis by the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2013 on age-based stereotypes found that men are significantly more likely than women to agree that there are enough older role models portrayed in the media.

The federal government has outlined its objectives for the superannuation system as governance and transparency. Superannuation adequacy is not a priority, as evidenced by the removal of the low income super contribution, which mostly assisted women.

Nor has there been recent consideration of the adequacy of the public pension system for vulnerable groups, the largest of which is women. This is the pension conversation which we ought to be having, but instead the government is playing carrot and stick so that the pension is not indexed to CPI if the assets test is tightened.

The way things stand, older women can look forward to one less thing to be guilty about as they age. They will be able to afford a diet rich in lean protein – in the form of cat food. That’s the future, as long as the income and housing needs women face as they age are relegated to second-order status.