When thinking of an older woman, many of us picture a grandmother with time to bake, garden and socialise. But this traditional image is shifting, as many women are working up to retirement age and beyond. From 1995 to 2016, employment for women aged 55 to 59 increased from 35 per cent to 63.8 per cent. And between 2006 and 2018, the workforce participation rate for women aged 65 and over increased from 4 per cent to 10 per cent.
Dr Ruth Williams, a lecturer in ageing at the University of Melbourne and convenor of the Hallmark Ageing Research Initiative, says there are several reasons why women return to, or remain in, the workforce. "Lots of women enjoy the social interaction. They also enjoy the routine of work and having a purpose."
“Older women may not have superannuation due to raising families, and they also occupy a lot of part-time positions.”Credit:Getty Images
There is a dark side, however, as older, single women are increasingly vulnerable to housing stress and homelessness. "Financial disadvantage can be accumulated over a lifetime," says Williams. "Older women may not have superannuation due to raising families, and they also occupy a lot of part-time positions.
So many women are not actually able to retire. They have to work." So what is it like to be an older woman in the workforce today? Three women tell their stories.
Company director, 56
“Working gives me more oomph. I feel like it’s good for me to have something to contribute.”
"I don't really think of myself as an older woman who is still working. I've been working most of my life. I worked in my husband's pharmacy part-time while our kids were growing up, and after he sold the business I needed to do something because my mind is very active.
I helped set up an anti-ageing clinic and realised there was a gap in the market for a convenient nutrition bar that wasn't designed for bodybuilders. In 2006 I started Slim Secrets, a range of healthy snack products. It began as a hobby and when I started I could go for walks and still go out for lunch with the girls. But these days I can be working as much as seven days a week as we also sell internationally. My hobby very quickly turned into a business well beyond anything I anticipated.
Working gives me more oomph. I feel like it's good for me to have something to contribute rather than sitting at home, or shopping, or going out to lunch. Half of my friends still work. My mum is 80 and has always worked in business, so she's a role model from that perspective.
You do get pulled in a lot of directions when you're my age. Many of us are lucky to still have older parents and grandchildren. There is a lot of guilt about what we should be spending our time on.
My husband supports the fact that I'm working. He and my children have all loved watching something grow from an idea into a brand. I won't keep doing it forever, though. My son works with me and he's doing a great job. The reason I love working is that it gives me a purpose. I'm not working because I have to; I'm doing it because I want to. Give me a challenge and I thrive! We've been stocked in the supermarkets since we were six months old and I love working hard to stay there.
My life is so full and I'm learning and experiencing so much daily. Women have more to offer when they're productive."
Church pastor, 78
“I know that my life experience brings a particular value to my work.”
"I'm 78 and the lay pastor of a church. I am committed to working 24 hours a week and I can spread those hours to suit me. My work involves preaching on Sundays, leading the service, visiting people, and sitting on some committees. I also run a playgroup and lead a seniors' group.
Works gives me something really great because I am in contact with newborn babies all the way through to people of different ages in our church, and then the seniors' group. People usually think I'm younger than I am so they don't talk to me about my age. I have a few good genes, for sure. I'm healthy and effective and doing what I love.
I've given long notice that I'll retire in January 2020, when I turn 80. That sounds like such an advanced age, doesn't it? I could lie about my age easily and just keep going, but having been in the role for as long as I have it's probably good for the church to have a change. I fully expect to continue with much that I do, but in a voluntary capacity.
There are things I tend to forget. I can quote the Bible like you wouldn't believe but sometimes I look out in the congregation and I momentarily can't remember the names of people I know really well. In the playgroup, I call all the kids 'darling' – and at my age, you can get away with it!
I was a teacher way back and I loved it so much. I couldn't believe they paid me for doing it. It's the same with being a pastor. It's a joy and I can't think of any negatives of being older and still working. Working keeps me alive, alert, invigorated and excited about what's happening next.
I love the role and the people I serve, and I am blessed with good health – that's a significant factor in my ability to keep working. I know that my life experience brings a particular value to my work. I would imagine that these factors would apply to many women who would like to continue working, especially in a part-time role, and whose maturity would be an advantage in their workplace. If people are fit and well and interested in life, then they want to make the most of what they have and what they have to give."
News anchor, 60
“In my world, I only see evidence of women who are ambitious and who want to stay in the workforce for as long as possible.”
"I anchor the regional news bulletins for Channel Nine in Victoria. My make-up call time is 1.30pm and I'm off air just after 7pm, but I also produce feature stories for the metropolitan news and I shoot those stories before 1.30pm.
Until recently, I was also presenting a radio show, as well as doing feature stories and the regional news. I was busier than I'd ever been in my life. I decided to stop presenting the radio show because I found that I was pushing myself a bit too hard, especially as I'm a single mum with four children. I did find it difficult to juggle all of that but I don't know that it's a question of age. That would be a lot to do for anyone.
My father instilled a tremendous work ethic in my sister and me. He retired when he was 80 years old but he got bored in retirement so he ended up going back to work as a car park supervisor and working until he was 92. My sister is 72 and up until recently worked two jobs.
I've always loved working hard and achieving, and I've been surrounded by a family of hard workers. My daughter says I'm a great role model for her, and my boys applaud me and tell me I work so hard.
I'm quite driven to stay in the workforce. And I'm surrounded by people who are the same. I look at my peers and colleagues and see plenty of women in their 50s and 60s who are still working. I don't see evidence of women having a use-by date.
In my world, I only see evidence of women who are ambitious and who want to stay in the workforce for as long as possible. I'm certainly one of those. You work as long as you can. As long as the opportunities are there and you're being asked to continue working, you work."
This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale November 25.
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