Australian women facing the future Is the intergenerational report gender neutral?

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Predictions for an ageing population and a decreasing proportion of Australians of working age, and the economic impact of these changes, have been accompanied by strategies for developing economic sustainability.

The recent Intergenerational Report (Commonwealth of Australia, 2002) has provided a background for discussions about the sociodemographic future of Australia. Predictions for an ageing population and a decreasing proportion of Australians of working age, and the economic impact of these changes, have been accompanied by strategies for developing economic sustainability. Starting from the principle that neither the overall tax burden nor the nation’s debt should increase, the Australian government is seeking long-term strategies to reduce per capita expenditure in health and aged care, individual welfare payments, education and training.

Applied research and policy development is increasingly focusing on ageing. Current interest in the social and health implications of an ageing population is demonstrated, for example, by the ASSA workshop “Evidence into policy: What works in ageing?” which is being held subsequent to the National Symposium on Ageing Research, sponsored by the Department of Health and Ageing and the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. These issues – both the demographic changes and the policy reaction to them – are unlikely to be gender-neutral, but the debate so far has largely ignored the differential impact on women.

Given that women are more likely to be out of the labour force than men, take a greater share of responsibility for child-rearing, earn less money when employed, are less likely to have adequate private superannuation, have higher levels of minor physical and emotional morbidity, and can expect a longer old age, any potential adverse effects of systemic policy changes are likely to impact more on women than on men. Australian research into the aspirations of young Australian women has demonstrated that, by the age of 35, 98% want to be in a relationship, 96% want paid employment, and 91% want children. When one considers that two-thirds of family caregivers in Australia are women and that women contribute disproportionately to unpaid domestic labour even when they are in full-time employment, it is clear that pressures on expenditure on health and aged care, welfare, and other community services are likely to impact disproportionately on women. It is also clear that these effects are not short-term ones but will persist over generations. There is evidence to suggest that middle-aged Australian women cope well with multiple roles, but that younger women find it more difficult. It is also the case that high workloads are associated with poor physical and emotional health among middle-aged women, and that many appear resentful of what they consider an unfair burden of family caregiving.

This workshop examines the effects of these issues on Australian women across the lifespan, and the potential implications for appropriate research and policy strategies to maintain well-being.



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