Older women do not envy the educational and career opportunities of young women and recognise that these opportunities also bring responsibilities, according to research commissioned by Anglican aged care agency Benetas.
Women at Work: The Voices of Older Women was launched on 7 March, the eve of International Women’s Day, by actor Noeline Brown, who is also Australia’s first “Ambassador of Ageing”, a role she has held since 2008 to promote healthy, active ageing.

The paper, by Associate Professors Grazyna Zajdow and Marilyn Poole of Deakin University, was drawn from interviews with 25 women aged from 66 to 92 living in the eastern and south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne. They were asked to compare their own lives with those of younger women today.

“Despite the cultural norm that married women should not work unless they were disadvantaged, most of the women in fact worked all of their adult lives,” the paper said. “Indeed many continued well beyond the retirement age for women of 60, some working well past the age of 70. Others worked, whether through desire or necessity, even while sick or disabled. Despite somewhat fragmented working lives, they liked work and the benefits of extra money, the contribution to the household economy they were able to make and spending time with workmates. Indeed quite a few of the women continued doing community work as volunteers. One even managed a charity shop as a volunteer for over 20 years.

“Any hypotheses of envy over the educational and career opportunities of young women today were not supported. The women in our sample recognised that younger women did have tremendous opportunities but these opportunities also brought responsibilities. They had to work to support their more expensive tastes and higher aspirations than those of previous generations.”

The paper said there were mixed messages on women’s childcare role within the family. Many of the women expressed the view that it was very important to be at home with very young children and home again after school time for school-age children, many of those in the study having worked shift work or part-time to achieve this in their own lives. On the other hand, many of the women were providing (or had done so) hours of childcare for their daughters or daughters-in-law while they worked. The rationale was that the younger generation had a financial imperative to work and a grandparent could provide the loving care so necessary for children. None complained that this was an imposition.

“Many of the women did not feel they had led interesting lives until they began talking and relating their experiences,” the paper said. “None had had an easy life; many had experienced the loss of a child or a grandchild or the loss of a husband. Many had lived through war in Europe and through the Depression and deprivation. They knew what it was to experience anxiety about money and anxiety about the future. Almost all of the women were reliant on an age pension and felt that they had missed out on the opportunities of superannuation, which would have enabled them to save for their later years. Nevertheless, without exception their narratives were of
hope, experience and resilience.”

The Revd Canon Dr Colleen O’Reilly, Vicar of St George’s Malvern, told the gathering at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image at Federation Square that the report reminded her of her own family’s experiences.

“I have some understanding of these older women, their struggles and their achievements,” said Dr O’Reilly, who represented Archbishop Philip Freier at the launch. “My mother was born in 1909 and widowed in 1935 when my older half-sister was four. I grew up hearing the stories of my mother’s ingenuity in creating opportunities to work and raise my sister. She bought herself a house, with a tennis court she let, and later a shop with an attached residence. Having met my father during the war years, she remarried and I was born and then my younger sister.

“At the same time, I am an early member of the generations that have experienced great social change and great opportunities. As a priest in the Anglican Church, I live a life and do work that I never imagined growing up in the 1950s and 60s would be mine.  I see younger women choosing careers with marvellous freedom and the determination to combine work and personal relationships in the pursuit of a fulfilling, productive life.

“Sigmund Freud famously said we need both: love and work. Love is the commitment to personal relationships within the family, however configured, and among friends; and work is all that we do to contribute to society, whether paid or not. This study demonstrates the ingenuity of older women in managing both, despite the cultural norm that mothers in particular should not have paid work. This was clearly honoured more in the breech than the observance. Working has in fact been the necessary reality for many mothers far more frequently than society cares to acknowledge. 

“I am glad to read that the women in this study discovered far more to their own life stories than they remembered initially… Nothing so validates we human beings than being heard by another who listens deeply. I am pleased that the researchers noted an absence of envy of younger women; nothing would be more corrosive not only of the individuals but of the bonds across generations that are the warp and weft of supportive community.  The three characteristics identified by this study should give us all confidence that hope is engendered through experience reflected upon, which builds resilience and makes for a good life rather than merely an easy one.”

Benetas’ chief executive, Ms Sandra Hills, said the idea for the research came when she was conversing with a resident at Broughton Hall, Camberwell, who remarked, “Isn’t it great to see so many young women in managerial positions?”, adding that she was proud to see women in management even though she had not had such an opportunity herself.
Ms Brown – who has just celebrated her 50th year in show business, including lead roles in television programs such as The Mavis Bramston Show; My Name’s McGooley, What’s Yours?; The Naked Vicar Show and Dancing With The Stars – said one of the most important changes had been in the attitude and behaviour of women in that time.

“Reaching this great age of 74 has made me understand what is important in life and that is family, friends and community – I have to say it’s work as well because I love my work,” she said. “It’s no longer the time to worry about the smaller stuff.”

Ms Brown said volunteering – much of it done by older people and often women – had been reckoned to be worth about $75 billion a year and some put the amount as high as $200 billion. This was worth more to Australia than mining, she added.

She said in 40 years, one in four Australians would be aged 65 years or over. Senior Australians were often portrayed in the media as frail, older people living in nursing homes but 94% of people 65 or more lived in their own homes alone, in a group or as part of a family.

“The 65-year-old of today is nowhere near the 65-year-old of my parents’ generation, who might have died before they reached 65.

“Senior Australians are challenging the old, tired notions of ageing and challenging them successfully.”

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