WOMEN in their late 50s and early 60s have surged back into the workforce and held on to their jobs much more than men of similar age because they cannot afford to retire, an economist has found.
The growth in women's participation rate in late working life over the past decade has been dramatic, soaring about three-quarters higher than that of older men, and it is mostly about money, consultant Carolyn Evans says.
"We asked a series of women in that age group why they were working and almost without exception . . . they had to come back to work, or they were going to retire and when they did the numbers, they didn't have enough to live on," said Mrs Evans, who researched the motives for the Australian Business Foundation.
"They had effectively arrived at a choice of living in genteel poverty for another 40 years not starving, but no holidays, no treats and no fun," she said.
"The alternative is staying at, or going back to, work in 'top up super' mode. That is a good choice, given women's health outlook at 55 is greater than it was 20 years ago."
The good news from her analysis of Bureau of Statistics figures and interviews was that strong jobs growth meant women in this age group could find work, but the flip side was that they had to, she said.
In their early working lives, they missed out on equal pay and other conditions men enjoyed, such as long service leave. In the absence of maternity leave, they had to forgo pay and superannuation when they took unpaid leave to have children, she said.
"Those we spoke to across the board largely were making a positive and willing choice to work part-time or casual instead of full-time . . ." Mrs Evans said.
Many full-timers were considering winding back their hours by changing jobs or opening businesses, she said.
But self-employment carries its own risks for retirement.
Most female business owners and entrepreneurs are not paying themselves any superannuation, even though almost one in three say they know they should, a women's business body has found. An online survey of almost 3000 businesswomen found only about one in five have always paid themselves contributions, while one in four do so when they can.
Yolanda Vega, chief executive of the Australian Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which conducted the research, said women were leaving their jobs in increasing numbers to set up businesses, but even among those who gave themselves superannuation, the contributions were too little or too late. "What we do not want to find five years from now is a million women living below the poverty line because they have no superannuation, a failed business and are no longer employable," she said.
Pauline Vamos, chief executive of the Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia, warned that the growing number of self-employed women could lead to tens of thousands more having only the age pension for retirement.