Why single, older women without children face economic insecurity

A first-of-its-kind study examining the economic security of single older women without children has busted the myth that people without children must have uninterrupted careers and healthy retirement savings.

Led by Associate Professor Myra Hamilton from the University of Sydney Business School, the research found two thirds of research participants had experienced an involuntary career interruption despite not having children.

“Many studies have revealed the significant career interruptions of parenthood on financial security in old age,” said Associate Professor Hamilton, Principal Research Fellow at the ARC Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing Research.

“This is the first report to take a comprehensive look at the experience of single, older women without children. We found that these women are more likely to have career interruptions later in life – in their 50s or 60s – as they take on caring responsibilities for elderly parents.”

Our research shows older single women without children are the most likely cohort to have other care responsibilities.

Associate Professor Myra Hamilton, University of Sydney Business School

Analysing national data, the research found that older single women over the age of 45 without children take on more care responsibilities for family members who are ageing or have a disability than any other group in their age cohort – partnered people, people with children, or men.

The report, Security in old age for older single women without children, was published today and is a collaborative project between the University of Sydney, University of NSW and Curtin University, funded by Certified Practicing Accountants (CPA) Australia.

Better earnings don’t lead to security in old age

While many participants reported that not having children increased their earning capacity early in their careers, this did not translate into better financial security later.

“While not having children increased their earning capacity, being single meant they could not benefit from sharing their financial burdens with a partner. Therefore, many didn’t have the disposable income to save, and this limited their opportunities to add to their super and enter the housing market and lead to more frequent experiences of financial hardship,” said Associate Professor Hamilton.

Two thirds of research participants had experienced an involuntary career interruption despite not having children

Co-author of the report, Professor Helen Hodgson from Curtin University, said, “The biggest worry for older single women without children is secure accommodation. Although they may take home a higher pay cheque than their married co-workers there is little left to save after they have paid their rent or mortgage.”

Like mothers, this left them with limited superannuation in later life. But unlike mothers, they did not have adult children to support them as their care needs increased.

“Tailoring financial advice to clients, their goals and life stages is critical to helping them achieve financial security,” CPA Australia General Manager External Affairs, Dr Jane Rennie, said.

“The economic turmoil created by COVID-19 has decimated the incomes and savings of many Australians. As an economically vulnerable cohort, single, older women may need additional support to achieve an adequate retirement. This report provides valuable insights for accountants and other professional advisers as they design strategies for these clients.”

Employers and policymakers need to listen

The researchers combined analysis of the national Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey with an online research community of 45 older single women without children, conducting phone interviews with accountants and financial planners about support provided to this group of women.

Financial advisors and aged care advocates have a major role in providing them with appropriate advice and support.

Professor Helen Hodgson, Curtin University

The report identifies a common theme in workplaces, where employers assumed these women are ‘unencumbered’ by childcare responsibilities.

“We spoke to many women who said they were expected to stay back late to finish work when other employees had to leave to pick up kids from school or asked to not take annual leave over school holidays,” said Associate Professor Myra Hamilton.

“Yet our research shows older single women without children are the most likely cohort to have other care responsibilities. This can place them under excessive pressure that affects their work-life balance.”

In a suite of policy recommendations made in the report, the researchers call for better education for employers on putting the anti-discrimination legislation into practice. It also calls for more secure and affordable housing options and better access to financial products and services for older women.

“Older single women without children face specific issues in planning for their needs late in life, with limited support networks. Financial advisors and aged care advocates have a major role in providing them with appropriate advice and support,” Professor Hodgson said.

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