Older women: too smart to waste

May 23, 2013
mature-workers google

She’s the smartest woman I know. She loves nothing better than to apply her brilliant, analytical mind to a complex problem. She’s re-structured major businesses and she’s run her own; she’s even helped re-structure a national sporting code.

So how come she’s been out of work? She’s in her mid-60s that’s why. She took a couple of years out of the workforce a few years ago to be a full-time carer. And now she laughs at me when I ask if she’s had luck with employers. “There’s absolutely no point in applying for jobs,” she says. “I just wouldn’t be interviewed.”

Today a major report is being released called Older Women Matter. It’s about how the nation is wasting a critical resource – the skills and experience of mature-age women (defined as 45+). It’s not that older men who are unemployed or under-employed don’t matter, too. They do. And I’ve written about them here. It’s just that nearly all the statistics about older women are worse. As the report shows, compared to men, mature-age women are less likely to be in the workforce, and if they’re in work they’re more likely to be under-utilised. And if they lose their jobs, women aged 45 to 64 face a longer average period of unemployment – 44.8 weeks compared to 39.5 weeks for men. It’s no picnic for men. But with women, there’s potential for big advances of benefit to the women themselves, business and the economy. Older Australian women are much less likely to be employed than their New Zealand, U.S or Canadian counterparts. For example, in 2011 Australian women aged 55-64 had a labour force participation rate of 54.9 per cent; in New Zealand it was 69.8 per cent. If Australia had the same participation rate as New Zealand of people aged 55+ our GDP in 2012 would have been four per cent higher.

The report is an initiative of the Diversity Council Australia in partnership with the Australian Human Rights Commission. And it’s so important I thought it warranted this special Thursday blog post to co-incide with its release. The need to change attitudes to older women is the new frontier for public policy. What older women have to offer – experience, discipline, education and hard-work – is little appreciated. Some are part of the sandwich generation, juggling care of aged parents and children. But many – their children grown, their parents dead – are freer than ever to contribute to the paid workforce.

In some ways baby boomer women have been a lucky generation. They’ve enjoyed new freedoms and opportunities. They could get higher education and leave bad marriages. And in unprecedented numbers, they moved into the workforce and stayed there as they grew older. As a result, there has been a big growth in older women in the workforce. Thirty years ago most women aged 45-54 were housewives. Today it’s the norm for them to work – 77 per cent are in jobs or looking for work. In 1983 only 11 per cent of women aged 60-64 were in the workforce. Today it’s soared to 46 per cent, the Global Financial Crisis playing its part.

So yes, there’s been a cultural shift. It sounds like a good news story. But the report shows close to 60 per cent of women are retired by the time they’re 55; and women retire on average eight years earlier than men. The growth in mature-age women’s employment is from a low base, and if the load on younger taxpayers is to be eased, that growth can’t stop now.

Older women still face serious obstacles in gaining employment. As the report says, they face a double standard: pressure to look young and attractive but rejected on the grounds of being “over-qualified.” Prejudices abound: “they’re loyal but lacking potential,” “low in energy,” “unwilling to accept criticism;” and employers assume they’ll lack necessary skills because of career breaks. Research cited in the report shows younger female applicants are 40 per cent more likely to gain an interview for some positions than their older counterparts.

There are many reasons older women today, including those in their 60s and 70s, want to work. More are single or divorced with low retirement savings. More are in good health, in white collar careers that are easier on the body. And some, like the smartest woman I know, want to continue to use their minds and skills at a high level. It’s not that these women lack imagination to re-invent a post-work life. They’ve always fitted hobbies, volunteering and grandchildren around work, and don’t want these activities to be the totality of their life.

The report outlines key strategies for business to retain and increase its mature-age female workforce. And there’s a particularly useful seven-point strategy for older women workers and jobseekers (stay connected, find specialist recruiters, stay current, get career coaching) that I’d encourage you to read if interested.

As for my smart friend, having dismissed the job ads and recruitment firms as useless, she used her old contacts and eventually landed a three-day a week job as a senior adviser to two young female business owners. She’s enjoyed transferring her knowledge and skills to the next generation of women workers. The nation can’t afford to waste them.

What are your thoughts?

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