This is a paper based on a powerpoint presentation I gave at the the 2007 National Conference of the Older Women’s Network (Australia). It was held at the Australian National University, in November 2007. For my comments on the conference itself, see this earlier post.

Older women tend to have a positive attitude towards life, are very active in the community and make a very positive contribution to society. The negative attitude towards us is entirely unwarranted. It is up to us to be vocal in telling the rest of Australia the way it really is.

Ageism and Ageing in Australia.

1. Ageism.

There are now three recognized ‘isms’: sexism, racism and ageism. All three are similar in that they all treat the target group as second class citizens, implying, in particular, that they are less intelligent. Sexism and racism are now illegal (although not completely eliminated) but ageism is rampant.

Ageism in the academic world.

For research to be accurate it should involve the target group at all stages, from deciding which issues need researching, writing the questionnaire (or its equivalent), analysing the results of the questionnaire, writing up the results and the conclusions. Australian research on ageing fails this test in that it usually only involves older people in answering a questionnaire which has usually been written by younger people.
At conferences on the ageing, most of the audience is made up of younger people, as are the presenters. This is parallel to what happened to women as they fought for equality. Conference presenters were males and there were only a few token women in the audience. The research which was presented at that time has long since been forgotten simply because it wasn’t accurate. Today’s researchers into ageing aren’t willing to learn from history.

Ageism in the world around us.

The media seems to delight in putting down older people. We are all aware of the frequent headlines about how much the ageing population is going to cost in terms of pensions and health. Equivalent headlines showing how much we contribute in terms of voluntary work, as carers and as members of the workforce, including as part time workers, are non-existent.

Myth adds to our negative image. We are all aware of ‘senior’s moments’ and tend to apply them to ourselves, yet the behaviour usually applies to all age groups. I was told the story of a group of people sitting around discussing life. One said how silly it felt when you to go to a room and by the time you have got there you have forgotten what you went for. This is a situation that older people can identify as a ‘senior’s moment’ but in fact this group were 20 year old University students! I suggest that when older people find themselves in this sort of situation, instead of berating themselves for getting old, losing their marbles and deteriorating, they stand there and say ‘There I go behaving like a 20year old Uni student again’! Other behaviours which are used to denigrate older people also apply to other age groups. We should stand up and say so.


One of the huge gaps in ageing is the lack of knowledge of how we age. In my research I am using data from the 2003 Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey (2003) managed by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research (supported by FaCSIA) and I need to point out that the data is theirs, but the results are mine. I used people from the age of 55 (the public service retirement age) and took 83 questions from the questionnaire which I felt were relevant to older people. I grouped the responses into background, family and living arrangements, use of time, finance, health/fitness and lifestyle.
At the recent Older Women’s Network (Australia) Annual Conference I presented examples of each of these groups. There were 1891 women in the sample which I divided into 5 year age groups (54 – 59 etc). Statistical analysis enabled me to apply the data to the whole Australian population. The survey only applies to people living in private accommodation.

1. Background.

Education levels. Most women age 55+ were only educated to year 12 or below (approximately 90% for the 80+ age group) but the percentage going to University continues to increase. Research indicates that 51% of today’s University students are women.
Country of birth. Most (approximately 68% to 78%) were born in Australia but the number is falling. Of the rest, the number is fairly evenly divided between women coming from English speaking countries and from non-English speaking countries.

2. Family and living arrangements.

Number of children. Most women have 2 children, even among the 85+ age group, with 3 children the second common number. Throughout all age groups approximately 8% have not had children.
Distance to nearest child. Less than 10% had the nearest child living overseas and more than half had them within driving distance.
Living arrangements. The younger age groups tended to live as a couple, but with age the number living in a single person household increased to approximately 80% at age 90+.

3. Use of time.

Carers. All age groups had some respondents providing 30+ hours of carer time per week, with the younger age groups mainly providing a few hours per week.
Socialising. In all age groups, most people had weekly contact with people from outside the home with very few responding that they rarely had such contact.
Working. Most women who didn’t have jobs but were looking for them had given up by the age of 70. Only about 25% of women were still in the workforce at age 60-64 but a few in the 80+ age group were still employed.

4. Finance.

Pension. About 90% of women aged 65 – 74 were on the age pension but the number falls for older women to around 70%, which is surprising.
Prosperity. Very few women in all age groups recorded ‘poor’ as their level of prosperity. More than half said that they were very or fairly prosperous.
Financial satisfaction. In all age groups a few women recorded that they were not financially satisfied, although more than half were satisfied.

5. Fitness/health.

Physical activity. In all age groups some women reported that they took part in physical activity daily. The number who reported that they never participated increased with age, which may be the result of physical deterioration.
Walk 1km. A few women in each age group reported that they were unable to walk 1km, with the number increasing with age. However even at age 85+ more than half could still walk this far.

6. Lifestyle.

Feeling safe. Most women felt safe, with the number who felt extremely safe rising with age.
Down in the dumps. In all age groups approximately 80% said that they rarely or never felt down in the dumps.
Satisfaction with life. In all age groups, less than 10% recorded feeling dissatisfied with life.