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Recently I was at a friend’s 40th birthday party, chatting to his mother. No shrinking violet, Suzanne had raised 3 unruly boys and fostered the 15 year old daughter of a terminally ill neighbour, all whilst running 2 successful youth hostels in Sydney’s inner suburbs. An impressive woman by today’s standards, and even more so in the era in which she juggled her parenting with working (and no doubt all the household tasks too, given she was married to a busy doctor).
As we stood about, in this mixed group of young children, middle aged parents and a scattering of baby boomer grandparents, we discussed being a working mum. We were of course interested in Suzanne’s experiences; she was virtually a pioneer after all. Around the time I was born it was not uncommon - nor ever considered poor form - to mourn the fact that women were now working rather than being at home where they rightfully belonged.
Suzanne’s sage advice was that now that we were of ‘middle age’, it was the time that we should be looking for our second career, the one that would take less energy and ambition and lead us easily into retirement.
An awkward silence fell amongst the group. Many of us have recently found our second career. The part time one that enables us to manage our young children through primary school, that gives us flexibility to see the school play and maybe lighten the workload – or at least juggle some hours - during school holidays. Some of the mums had only just been able to return to the workforce in some form, because the costs of childcare had made working financially impossible before their children began school.
But for most if not all, the change of career wasn’t put in place with a mind to how we will be able to work when we are “old”. (And we are most definitely older than Suzanne was when her children were young - the median age for mothers was 25.4 years in 1971 versus 30.7 years in 2010 . But in certain geographic areas the average age of first mothers is well above this, where career and travel might have delayed the start of family life.)
Occasionally I do cast a fleeting glance forward. It’s hard to imagine that far, when I still have a child in day-care and night nappies, but I do realise that I will be 56 when my last child leaves high school – 4 years out from supposedly accessing my superannuation and leading a blissful life caravanning around Australia. (My own mother was 47 when I left high school.) Yet, it's child care and school fees over superannuation for me for some time to come, which is a position many of my generation of older mums will face. We are definitely a new type of sandwich generation – trying to decide whether to invest in our future or that of our kids?
And the government is clear that workplace participation must expand – women need to get back into the workplace after having children, and we need to work longer. This is important both from an economic perspective, with estimates that women’s contribution to productivity could improve the GDP by 11% and what we have to offer in terms of experience. Further, the growth in the workplace won’t come from anywhere else. Growth in the population of traditional workforce age is expected to slow to almost zero. This is a permanent change. And of course a personal incentive is to keep working to pay for that caravan and oh, keep living well to the ripe old age of 86, our current life expectancy.
One thing I do wonder is whether I be able to manage this marvellous flexible job when I am 55 years old? We talk about the buoyant health of our baby boomer generation versus their parents, so will generation X be in even finer form? Or will I have to find a perky intern to help carry my facilitator’s suitcase around for me? It has me speculating on whether my generation of mums will need to find a “third” career to sustain us in the later years of our long long working lives.
It’s good to know that I won’t be alone, anyway. There has already been a sharp rise in the number of women aged 60-64 still in the labour force, jumping from 15.2% in 1993 to 45% in 2013. And as the population is aging, my client base will be aging with me so let’s hope I am not plagued by the age discrimination that is impacting the current baby boomer generation. A survey of 14,000 Australian women has revealed almost half believe they had personally been discriminated against because of their age, and 62 per cent of respondents believed employers are more likely to hire a candidate under the age of 40.
So I’d better start putting some money in the piggy bank, as it’s a long road ahead for me. The good news is that according to a study combing polls of tens of thousands of women in several countries, including Australia, we have the age of 58 to look forward to – when we apparently, finally, get that elusive work/life balance under control.