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Tailoring the workplace is the key to keeping skilled women at work

By Monika Merkes - posted Monday, 25 August 2003

Longer working lives for Australian women of the baby boom generation? - Women's views and the policy implications of an ageing female workforce.

Attitudes to older people's desire and capacity to contribute to society are changing. With an increasing proportion of older people in the Australian population and increasing health and longevity, more older people are participating in the workforce. Reasons for this include sustaining economic growth, easing pressure on government income-support systems and providing meaning and social connection for people in later life. Population ageing leads to changes in the economy, workforce, family structures, local communities, living arrangements, public expenditure and revenue, labour force participation rates, retirement decisions and consumption patterns.

What do these changes mean for the people that are now approaching retirement? What are the views of baby boomers? What policies should be developed and implemented to address population ageing? The discourse about our ageing population and its implications for the Australian retirement system has only over the last few years started to attract the attention of the mass media - often portrayed with a negative bias and more distortion than fact. There has also been a growing interest in issues concerning the baby boomers.


This article reports on a research project focusing on Australian women of the baby boom generation, their working futures, and the work-retirement decision. This was explored both from the viewpoint of women and from a social policy perspective. The research comprised three studies: focus group research, computer-mediated communication (CMC) involving an Internet website and four scenarios for the year 2020, and the analysis of quantitative data from a large survey.

Working past age 65

The vast majority of the professional women and managers as well as some women in clerical and administrative positions who participated in the focus group discussions were open to the possibility of working past the age of 65 - but only if the conditions are right. Achieving a balance between work and other aspects of life, such as family, friends, study, community work, caring responsibilities and time for oneself, was found to be important to these women. Consequently, the women reported that they were only prepared to continue working past the traditional retirement age if a balance between work and other aspects of life could be achieved. Part-time work, project work or a different type of paid work were considered as possibilities. However, women in low-skilled occupations said that they wanted to retire as early as possible. Unlike plans for paid work, the women's enthusiasm for future volunteering went across occupational backgrounds.

The preferred retirement age for about half of all baby-boom women in the survey was between 55-59 years, although nearly one in ten wanted to work beyond the age of 64. The higher a woman's education level, the more likely she was to expect a later retirement. Further, the analysis of the data by occupational status found the following differences: the higher a woman's occupational status, the more likely she was to work longer hours, have a preference to work less, have not enough spare time, and the less likely she was to regard her income as the primary motivation to work. The focus groups and the survey included women who had plans to change the type of their work in the future.

The research found that paid work provided women in professional, managerial and some of the women in clerical positions with a sense of fulfilment, control over their creative activity and contribution to the community. While women in low-skilled occupations were found not to be able to obtain these benefits from their paid work, they considered unpaid work as a meaningful and socially useful activity over which they had control. Consequently, it appears that some non-financial benefits derived from unpaid work by low-skilled women may be similar to those gained by women in high-skilled occupations from paid work.

Despite the many negative aspects of contemporary workplaces, most women in the focus group discussions who commented on their paid work stated that they liked at least certain aspects of it. Many of the women who said that they worked mainly for financial reasons also remarked that they enjoyed the social aspects of their work - the social networks and the companionship with fellow workers.

However, the nature of current workplaces was found to be of great concern to the women. Participants in the focus group discussions and the CMC research commented on women's disadvantage in the workplace. In particular, they pointed to women's lower wages and reduced labour force participation and the implications for career options and retirement savings. Workplace changes over the last decade have reinforced this disadvantage. The casualisation of the workforce has affected women more than men, the experience of corporate downsizing has led to less job security and workplaces were perceived as lacking flexibility to suit women's needs. While some women reported that they had to work long hours, others were unable to find work, in particular those who tried to join the workforce after having taken time out to raise children or care for a partner. As a consequence, women felt time-deprived, rushed, pressured and stressed.


Providing unpaid work

Many women reported that they looked forward to volunteering in retirement. One in three women in the survey voiced this intention; many focus group participants noted their plans for volunteering in later life, and participants in the CMC research anticipated an increased level of volunteering in the future. Women's motivation for providing unpaid work for their communities varied, including a concern for others, giving something back to the community, keeping busy and increasing social contact. The women perceived volunteer work as providing mental stimulation, purposeful activity, social contact, and - unlike paid work - as having sufficient flexibility when combined with family responsibilities and other pursuits.

Caring is a type of unpaid work which is predominantly provided by women, is usually associated with financial disadvantage for the carer, and may have repercussions for the carer's health and well-being. Not surprisingly, the women who participated in this research expressed concerns for the care of their ageing parents and other relatives. They found the required support services in short supply, and commented that governments had reduced entitlements and cut services such as nursing home care and carer support. Many of the women in the focus group discussions reported that they juggled paid work and caring responsibilities, which often left them exhausted and with insufficient free time. They anticipated that in the future the expectations on women's time from partners, children and older relatives would increase.

Financing retirement

Anticipated financial resources in retirement were crucial to the women's plans for the future. Few women were confident that they had or would accumulate sufficient savings for their retirement. The issues that were raised in regard to the superannuation system were numerous and included the following main concerns:

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Article edited by Jenny Ostini.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

This article is based on a presentation to the Australian Social Policy Conference 2003 in Sydney. Click here for the full paper.

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About the Author

Monika Merkes is a social researcher and policy consultant who has worked in state and local governments, the community sector and academia.

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