Women who are aged 55 and over were pioneers in the workforce, the first generation to be allowed to continue to work after marriage. In 1966, the year 55-year-old women were born, you were not allowed to work in the Australian Public Service after you married. There was relatively no childcare, so options for working after having children were limited, unless you had a supportive family or friends.
This generation of women are facing the hangover of discriminatory employment conditions, with consequences reaching into their retirement. If a 55-year-old woman left the workforce to have and take care of children, she will have less superannuation to retire with.
If there has been a breakup in the marital home, or perhaps she is a single mother, she may not have enough assets or cash on hand to buy a new home for herself in the overheated property market. They cannot get a mortgage at the age of 55, because no mortgage broker will bet on whether they’ll live long enough to pay off a house.
So, they must rent. In the overheated rental market with vacancy rates of as low as 0.2 percent and prices sky high. Anglicare’s most recent Rental Affordability Snapshot shows that across the entire country, only 0.03 per cent of rentals are affordable for a single older woman receiving the Age Pension.
Recent figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show, in fact, there’s been a 42 per cent increase in people over the age of 65 who pay unaffordable (30 per cent of their income or more) rent since 2011.
Older women who continue to rent privately and work are only ever a pay cheque away from homelessness. If they become ill, lose their job, or liquidate all their assets to pay unaffordable rent and cope with the cost of living, they are at a very high risk of homelessness.
What happens to women who find themselves in this situation, then?
If a 55-year-old or older woman loses her health, she will likely be on JobSeeker, albeit without the mutual obligation components if she has a doctor’s certificate. The JobSeeker rate – as we all know – is well below the poverty line. If she’s lucky, she has some savings, but they will deplete rapidly without an income other than JobSeeker. There’s nobody else to help her financially, and she doesn’t want to ask for help, and wouldn’t know who to ask if she did. She cannot access her limited superannuation as her government mandated retirement age is 61 or older.
If a 55-year-old or older woman loses her job, finding another job can prove difficult, despite the number of jobs that might be available because of age discrimination in the employment market, which women over 55-years’ experience at a substantially higher rate. Without a job, she will again, be on JobSeeker, as the Age Pension is not available until she turns 66 years and 6 months old.
Let’s pause here.
The rate of JobSeeker is $282.85 per week. The Age Pension for a single woman is $493.80 a week. The average weekly rental cost for a single woman in Australia is $436 per week.
Is it any wonder that women aged 55 and over are the fastest growing homeless cohort in the country?
The not-for-profit sector has been quick to realise the plight of women aged over 55, and their risk of homelessness. There are initiatives such as the Uniting retirement villages and housing specifically for women over 55, including affordable rentals for people aged 55 or over, offering stable and secure housing.
There are also crisis accommodation initiatives such as Uniting VicTas Mountview House. But, the fact remains these services and affordable rentals can only support a fraction of the women who need a secure and affordable home.
When women were suddenly allowed to work beyond getting married, childcare services did not automatically appear to support them to work. These services were phased in over time, with Equal Opportunity policies.
We have a great deal further to go in recognising the disadvantage faced by women over 55 years old in their retirement and senior years. And there is a clear lack of recognition that those who fought to have careers and children, faced a significant gap in their superannuation contributions.
Let’s not forget the years it took for genuine equal opportunities in the workforce to manifest. There is no specific policy, federal or otherwise, that acknowledges the disadvantage of this generation of women and supports them to keep a roof over their heads.
We need a common sense approach. We must have an immediate policy of support specifically for women over 55 that acknowledges the financial disadvantages their generation faced: the lack of childcare, the lower wages, gaps in their superannuation contributions, and the lack of opportunity.
We need immediate support specifically for women over 55 years of age, to ensure homelessness is not an issue. Government must build more social housing specifically for this cohort, and examine supported employment initiatives to ensure the payment of $10,000 to an employer to give a job to a mature age worker is effective. Only 58 per cent of women who are looking for work over the age of 55 are employed, while 42 per cent wait to reach their government mandated retirement age.
We must look at providing access to superannuation earlier than the age of 61+, raising the rate of the Commonwealth Rental Assistance Scheme, and recognising this generation as one that had to forge the way at a financial disadvantage which now puts them at the centre of the fastest growing sector of our population that is becoming homeless.