The long and winding road: the slippery slope to precarity for single older women.

Irene Ryan, AUT
Irene Ryan

On Monday, 8th April, the NCWNZ Auckland Branch invited Dr Irene Ryan to give an overview of a research project she and Branch Chair, Associate Professor, Barbara Myers are working on exploring the life stories of older, single women, aged 50-70 years. Irene began with a story that had provided the impetus for the research. Similar stories resonate today: groups of seemingly ‘invisible single women’, labelled as older, insecure, and struggling, despite many still being in full time employment.

Barbara Myers, Auckland NCWNZ Chair
Barbara Myer

The wider study sought to examine how the gendering of social class intersects with ageing, producing lines of privilege and (dis)advantage for single, employed, older women, who over time experience precarity at multiple levels of life’s domains. Irene outlined how the research, unfortunately hindered by COVID and its aftermath, is significant because it shifts beyond the usual ‘snapshot’ chronological age approach. The study considers the biographical dimension of a life course of gendered paid and unpaid work experiences, resources accrued (or not) and the challenges, which have rarely been heard. It does so by looking at ageing (not just chronological age), gendering (which refers to the process of socialisation according to the dominant gender norms), overlaid by social class (defined as the intersection of two-axis: socio-economic power and occupation), to show how identity markers and their boundaries are not fixed and how their social and political meanings vary over time.

The choice to use the word ‘precarity’ was deliberate, and rarely used in this type of research. Precarity is not simply a ‘labour condition’ (precarious work). When viewed from a life course perspective, precarity crosses multiple levels of life’s domains (e.g., paid work, and provisioning – the varied unpaid but essential activities that underpin the capitalist economy) and time: the past, the present and a future, the length of which is unknown. Conceptualizing precarity across time and space aligns with ageing and gendering. Importantly, it alerts researchers and policymakers to the cumulative impact of gender-differentiated opportunities, resources, and the choices (often limited) made over a life-course, affect different groups of women as they age. To-date, 21 semi-structured interviews have been completed with all participants identifying as European New Zealanders.

Given the audience and the impending Human Rights, CEDAW response, Irene centered much of the presentation on addressing the question: why the 50-70 years age range?

Firstly, Irene emphasized how it is the Baby-boomer/Gen X generation of women (like us) who have a different historical backdrop to present generations (e.g., relatively closed economy, 1970’s oil crisis, 1980’s hyper-individualistic neoliberal shift). This means that over their life course, many have experienced the cumulative effect of substantial labour market inequities. For example (and evidenced in the preliminary findings thus far), the gender pay gap, the gender opportunity gap, pay inequity, non-standard work arrangements (PT, fixed term, casual), societal expectations re-unpaid and voluntary work and its impact on careers, the scarcity and attitudes to childcare, the stigma/aftermath of divorce and for some, often-hidden sexual abuse/harassment, Intimate Partner Violence, and financial and economic abuse, in our highly segregated (both horizontal and vertical) labour market. One recent example of the cumulative effect of systemic labour market inequities is the Te Ara Ahunga Ora, Retirement Commission research that shows a 36% gender gap on KiwiSaver contributions (Distributional analysis of KiwiSaver contributions). That KiwiSaver did not start until July 2007 adds a further dimension to the inequities experienced by this cohort of women, who as they look to future KiwiSaver contributions, time is not on their side.

Secondly, despite age being a master signifier that affects us all, age only seems to be construed as a ‘problem’ when it refers to those ‘older’, for example the ‘ageing workforce’, where discourses of ‘bodies in decline’ are rife. Here, the limited research on ageing and paid work shows how the label ‘older worker’ is variously applied with 50+ being the most common age determinant. Some research shows how women are judged as ‘older – younger’ than their male counterparts (e.g., the anti-ageing commercial machine, onset of menopause), indeed one wonders if women are ever in the ‘right’ age cohort. Research also points to how the negativities associated with the label ‘older worker’ are not applied to everybody over 50 - but more so to women, particularly those in low paid, female-dominated sectors and/or precarious work situations and/or where restructuring / redundancies come ‘into play’ (e.g., evidenced during/aftermath of COVID).

Thirdly, an aspect that has come more to the fore recently, is the overlay of Human Rights which Irene argues does not appear well understood in NZ with our seeming ‘level playing field’. One outcome of global COVID pandemic led to a WHO 2021 report (WHO Report on Ageism 2021), which highlighted the global enormity of ageism (stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination on the basis of age) and while often hidden and unrecognised, contravenes a raft of human rights frameworks (A/HRC/Res/42/12 Human Rights of older persons). Given this and evidence of the intensification of gender-based ageism, the Human Rights Council extended the mandate of the Independent Expert (Claudia Mahler) to scope the gendered effects of ageing, specifically, the key human rights challenges faced by older women (HR of older women: the intersection between ageing and gender). After reviewing a raft of global studies, the report reaffirmed that 50 years was the age when groups of women were viewed as ‘older’ yet as she and other international studies related to women’s rights comment, there is a complete lack of data on this age cohort (50-64 years of age). This gender data gap resonates in the work of Caroline Perez, who illuminates how such silences, disadvantage women in all aspects of life, including healthcare, education, the workplace, and public policy (Summary - Invisible Women).

This invisibility is evidenced here with a dearth of research on this demographic cohort. The policy focus has/is either on ‘younger women’ (child-bearing age), the ‘broadbrush’ working age population (15-64 years e.g., The Treasury He Tirohanga Mokopuna 2021) and those ‘older’, 65+ (e.g., age of eligibility to NZ Super, e.g., WP 21/01 Golden Years) where age is commonly used in ways that fail to distinguish between the lives of men and women. One systemic example, also raised by Claudia Mahler (and evidenced in our study), is the void in the available data on Intimate Partner Violence (IPV), and sexual violence which either tends to be limited to the 15–49 age range (e.g., as noted in the WHO Global Report above), or the ‘broadbrush’ 15-64 years (e.g., BIM Family and Sexual Violence 2023) with women over 65 often categorised under the broader umbrella term, ‘elder abuse’.

Overseas and NZ studies (e.g. Ayesha Scott, 2023) show that IPV and, financial and economic abuse (e.g., before and after divorce) in later age can be a continuation of abuse lasting many years or even decades and is significantly underreported. The danger of the ‘flattening of age distinctions’ or ‘one-size fits all’ thinking, masks for one, the cumulative effect of IPV and/or financial and economic abuse and how these forms of abuse are threaded through all social classes (see CEDAW 9th Periodic Report, pgs.25 - 29). The point here is that policies based on the experiences of ‘younger’ victims of IPV, (more often linked to women with dependent children), may not be the appropriate basis upon which to develop policies, practices, and support mechanisms for older women, in this instance, between 50-70 years of age.

Irene emphasised how such examples highlight the problem of group categorisation. As Claudia Mahler (2021, p. 5) quite rightly points out, “gender equality laws, policies and strategies rarely consider the situation of older women in significant detail”. We concur with her calls for more visibility to be given to older women (50-70 years) in human rights frameworks and mechanisms. Also pertinent here is to shift the focus from one single discriminatory factor (sex/gender) to recognition of multiple or intersectional forms of discrimination (ageing, gender, ethnicity and social class), which as Irene noted may be a policymaker’s ‘nightmare’, but a necessity if inequities are to be addressed. At present CEDAW is the primary human rights mechanism, to what extent is it a case-in-point? Irene finished by leaving us with a question to ponder: Is ageism more socially acceptable, than other “ism’s” (e.g racism, sexism, ableism) in Aotearoa? Is it less socially valuable than other types of equality?


To read more articles from The Circular (May-June 2024) issue 647, click on the tag below.
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