She works, he plays: the new mixed-retirement couple

November 4, 2013

In her late 50s my friend finally has what a working woman always wants – a “wife.” Since her husband retired earlier this year, he’s happily taken over the domestic duties, including the cooking. She’s free to focus on her job, her master’s degree and having fun on the weekends. “I’m a bit spoilt,” she told me.

Not all “mixed retirement” couples are having such a smooth and happy transition. When she wants a career and he wants golf, a couple’s relationship can be severely tested. The traditional order is being upturned in later life for many couples. In the past, a housewife anticipated with apprehension her husband’s retirement; or working couples arranged to retire roughly at the same time (even if she didn’t want to). Now increasingly women are staying in the workforce while their husbands retire. It’s a whole new ballgame.

Behind this trend is a remarkable rise in the workforce participation of older women over the last decade. Older men on average are also staying in the workforce longer. But the leap in participation for women aged 55 and over has been even more dramatic. I don’t want to blind you with figures but fasten your eyes on a handful from the Australian Bureau of Statistics to get a sense of the massive social change underway. Among women aged 60 to 64, the proportion in work has risen by an amazing 93 per cent between 2001 and 2013 compared to a rise of 28 per cent for men. This means 45 per cent of women in their early 60s are working compared to 23 per cent only 12 years ago. For men, 62.7 per cent are working compared to 49 per cent in 2001 when early retirement was all the go. There are big upward shifts for the 55 to 59, and 65 and over groups, too, with growth in women’s work participation outstripping men’s.

This probably means more spouses are both working into their 60s for love, or for financial necessity following the GFC; and more single and divorced women are fending for themselves. But it also suggests that more women are heading off to work while their husbands, usually older, are pouring their second cup of coffee and doing Sudoku.

This is exactly the scene in another household where a couple I know has taken more than a year to adjust to a drastically different his-and-her pace. It’s not unusual for an organised working woman to be irritated that her retired partner doesn’t seem to be busy enough. “My husband told me, ‘You think retirement is like a job to do but I’m enjoying taking my time,’” said this senior public servant. “I find myself barking orders as I run out of the house. I think he’s relieved when I leave.”

In this case the husband has not fully evolved into a domestic god. They’ve retained the cleaner, for example. But he cooks, complies good-naturedly with the barked orders and the post-it notes bearing instructions, such as “Remember the dry-cleaning.” And between sailing trips, he’s fixing up the house.

For many women, the big and interesting work opportunities have come later in life. They’d taken time out when children were pre-schoolers, then returned to work part-time, or to jobs with manageable hours. Lacking a “wife” at home, they eschewed promotions. Now when he’s ready to relax, she’s just gearing up. As well, women’s superannuation pot is usually smaller than their husband’s so some may feel a certain obligation to contribute more towards their old age. “I’m fiercely independent,” said my public servant friend. “I couldn’t imagine being dependent on his superannuation even though rationally I know I’ve indirectly contributed to it.”

With these two women, the pleasures of seeing their husbands evolve into happier, more sociable people have outweighed any irritations in the new arrangement. By their 60s some men are ground down by the burden of work, but in retirement they lighten up. “He’d become difficult to live with in many ways, and now that’s lifted like a veil,” said my friend with the perfect “wife.”

Yet the new disequilibrium can intensify pre-existing problems. Nothing is more likely to rile a high-powered woman than to see her retired husband slouched in his underwear before the 7 pm television news with no evidence of dinner in the making. Respect can fly out the door. “I thought he’d do more,” one woman said to me. And she wasn’t just referring to housework and cooking. She meant involvement in worthwhile pursuits, or at least those she deemed worthwhile.

Questions of travel also interpose. After 40 years, a man with decent retirement savings may want to see the world. But a working wife has only four weeks’ holiday. In some cases she may come under pressure to leave a job she loves; in others he takes off for holidays alone; and when it’s her income they’re living on, it’s something else to discuss.

It strikes me this transition can be more difficult than the early child-raising years. But perhaps it also offers the chance to transcend the limitations of our gender roles, a quest that proved harder in our younger years than we once thought.

What are your thoughts? Please leave a Comment to further the discussion.

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