“SENATOR Nick Minchin could be right. Paid maternity leave, as advocated by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Pru Goward, may not do anything to improve Australia’s low fertility levels. But he is wrong to say maternity leave will not have positive benefits for an ageing society.

Most women are so well educated, empowered by earning their own incomes and allowed most of the freedoms and status once only the prerogative of men, it’s quite likely many women are going to continue to give motherhood a miss – indefinitely.

Canberra, a well-endowed, family friendly city with an 80 per cent plus workforce participation, above average numbers of jobs in the public sector and a highly educated workforce, also has a 1.65 fertility rate, well below the national average.

An ageing Australia will be an increasingly matriarchal one as women continue to outlive men by six or more years.

For that reason alone, there will be an increase in the number of citizens living close to poverty or in limited financial circumstances over the next four decades.

Looking forward two, then five, decades from now, there will be a dramatic change in the Australian population profile.

Blocked up the spine in a hierarchy from 0-90, in five year groups, the shape of the bar graph alters from a “Christmas tree” shape in 1991 to a rectangular shape by 2051. By 2021, that rectangle is already obvious. By 2051, females in the 85-90 category will outnumber any male or female group from age 0-50.

In an increasingly ageing and matriarchal society, larger numbers of citizens will be cashflow poor.

A large percentage of single older women constitute some of the poorest citizens in our community. The ANU’s NATSEM paper Women and Superannuation in the 21st Century notes the concern that a significant proportion of female retirees this century will receive age pensions and possess little or no private assets or income.

Austen, Jefferson and Preston, in Women and Australia’s Retirement Income System(Curtin 2002), show how our superannuation schemes discriminate against women by connecting the level of individuals’ retirement incomes directly and indirectly with labour-force participation.

Women’s retirement incomes are subsequently diminished both from broken work records because of child bearing and rearing and because of lower earnings generally compared with males.

Ross Clare in Women and Superannuation (ASFA 2001) argues that partly because of the rapid rise of earnings in male-dominated industries through the 1990s, women’s average earnings have been falling relative to those of males. Says Clare, “This is not helpful in reducing relative imbalance in regard to superannuation entitlements.”

Of course, superannuation schemes are catching younger workers earlier. Older baby boomers had little chance to be part of the Superannuation Guarantee Charge. As younger boomers retire, it is argued, super schemes will increasingly provide for them.

This will take some decades yet, however. And meanwhile women will still be a peg or two behind men in what they earn over a lifetime. Moreover, marriage is rapidly on the decline (last year recorded the lowest number of marriages since wartime 1941) and divorce is common. Increasingly, women are single by choice or circumstance.

Superannuation coverage for Australian workers is growing – 86.7 per cent of workers are now covered by superannuation contributions. This figure, however, hides the fact that the level of coverage is still quite inadequate for a majority to provide for their retirement. Austen, Jefferson and Preston’s study calculates this inadequacy from recent ABS figures.

They argue that median funds in superannuation accounts are low – equal to $13,000 for males and $6400 for females – and that 44 per cent of women with super have less than $5000 in their account. Others with less than $5000 in a super account include 53.2 per cent of part-time workers, 65.6 per cent of casuals, 56.2 per cent of the unemployed and 56.2 per cent of those not in the workforce. Fifty per cent of women who have retired or will retire in the next 10 years have less than $20,000 in super and 20 per cent of these have less than $5000.

A majority of women are now in full or part-time work and will be for most of their lives. This affects decisions younger women make about combining work with parenting.

Maternity leave and support for working mothers is one step towards improving older women’s financial circumstances. Staying in the workforce with fewer breaks in a working life improves a woman’s chances to earn at levels closer to male earnings and increase their superannuation contributions.

In spite of encouraging more women to be mothers, even to take time out to rear children, the structure of our retirement savings system means that even governments will need women to work longer to help pay for the costs of their retirement.”

Article published in The Canberra Times