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Women's Different Experiences

Teenage aboriginal girl on phone

The Economics of Age and Aging
Related section>> Planning Ahead

As women, our experiences of the economy are very different depending on where we are in our life journey. Given women's economic inequality throughout their lifetime, many women worry about both their present and future economic security.

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Children and teenagers
"We don't expect our kids to be participating in the economy, in our culture, until they reach about late teens," says Melody (see Melody's story), a parent to two young children. Evelyne (see Evelyne's story), also a young adult, echoes her concerns saying, "People have the idea that as kids we just consume things." Most kids in Canada don't see themselves as being part of the economy and our society doesn't do a lot to recognize the important part that children play in our economy. Children are the future of our society, including the economy, and we must organize our own communities and the world to ensure that they are protected as well as prepared for the challenges they will face.

Child care worker with aboriginal childAlthough children are the basis of tomorrow's society our economic investments in them are minimal. Child care workers are among the lowest paid of all workers. (See Caring for Children for more.) Child poverty is also a concern. In Canada one in five children lives in poverty, despite the federal government's promise to eliminate child poverty by the year 2000. In Manitoba the rate rises to one in four and within the Aboriginal community, that number is twice as high.1 Across the world children of single mothers are especially vulnerable to poverty. In Manitoba a single mother of two lives 56% below the poverty line (defined by the Statistics Canada's Low Income Cut-Off.) The 1996 National Council of Welfare Report says that the poverty rate for single mothers under the age of 25 was nearly 90%.2 Children who start off life in poverty start their adult lives at a major disadvantage from those who don't.

As teenagers, many girls start to participate in the paid workforce and learn to enjoy the benefits of participating in the economy. Lori Ann, who now runs her own business (see Lori Ann's story), says, "I was working at 15 so I always thought of the economy just as I go get a part-time job, make money and go to the mall and convert it into clothes." Many teenagers also consider their future in the economy. If they're able to, they may start saving for college or university and consider different occupations that may be available to them (see Kim's story). They also experience their first tastes of discrimination discovering lower-paying job options and a still segregated workforce. For teenage girls there is also a risk of pregnancy, a reality that can have huge consequences for the rest of a girl's life.

Woman going to workThe 20s and 30s
As young adults many women experience their first taste of financial freedom. In Canada that might mean moving out on their own, getting their first full-time jobs and pay cheques, and living independently of their parents. At this point many women finally feel they're giving back to the economy. At the same time they may discover major economic challenges: realizing that they are likely to be paid less than men no matter what their qualifications, and wondering if they will find permanent jobs or just part-time or contract work. Women often find themselves in lower-paid job ghettos (see Women and Paid Work) while still trying to pay off ever-larger student debts. And while women know how important a college or university education is for future financial security, the option is not always available. Some women have to work very hard in order to be able to afford post-secondary; for others even hard work isn't enough to get them there. Unemployment may also be a concern for young adult women; the unemployment rates for young women in their 20s are much higher than for women in their 30s and 40s.

Many women have children during their 20s and 30s and while some continue to work full-time, many others choose to spend a few years at home caring for their children - at least if they can afford it. Many women have no choice; they must find paid work in order to meet their family's financial needs. This isn't always a solution either as going back to work often means having to put children in childcare. In Manitoba the cost of registered childcare is higher than university tuition so many parents of young children find themselves in a tight spot. For single parents, the choices are even more agonizing. (See Caring for Children for more.) Some women decide to forego children altogether rather than attempt the balancing act of career and family.

Woman working with machineryThe middle years
As their children grow older, women who've stayed at home find their way back into the paid work force. Some women face an unpleasant surprise as they realize that the qualifications and experience of motherhood are not recognized there. Leah (see Leah's story), who has a Master's degree in Family Studies, took her education to heart and stayed home for 13 years to raise her children. Then she started looking for paid work. When she applied for certification from Manitoba Child Day Care, she was shocked to discover that "none of my education or experience was recognized and I was awarded the Childcare Assistant certificate. This is the lowest standing and not enough to qualify me for a job in a Montessori school," which is what she wanted. (Note: UNPAC has learned that a Prior Learning Assessment is now being incorporated in such appraisals.)

Some women lose long-time jobs in their late 40s and 50s and must retrain themselves in order to be 'marketable.' At age 49, Helma (see Helma's Story), who is an artist, lost her job in the arts field due to government cutbacks. Helma discovered few work options available to her. She was forced to cash in RRSPs from her divorce and spent some time working as a telemarketer. Eventually she followed her heart and found a way to work full-time as an artist but the economic consequences of this choice have been high.

Women may face other unexpected challenges too. Some women develop disabilities during their later working years. While women live longer than men, they do have a higher incidence of disability. As financial planner Gail Vaz-Oxlade sums up, "Men die. Women get sick." Women may also lose a spouse through death or divorce. Half of married women would live in poverty without their husband's income so the consequences of this loss can be very high.

Raging Granny smilingThe older years
As women grow closer to retirement, saving for the future becomes much more of a concern. Because their working lives tend to be 'interrupted' by having children, women have fewer years during which to save. Although women who do not have children may find that the extra time and energy they have had to devote to their careers has led to a place of financial security, like their mother counterparts they may also discover that their modest qualifications have kept them in low-paying jobs all their working lives and made it hard to build up a significant retirement income.

A combination of the wage gap and women's overrepresentation in the part-time work force means that women's contributions to the Canada Pension Plan (CPP) are less. At the same time private savings are difficult for those who've never had any surplus. As a result, half of single Canadian women over the age of 65 live in poverty. Because women tend to live longer than men, in Manitoba that means that there are 20,000 older single women living in poverty - five times the number of older single men.

Although Canadians are in many ways luckier than citizens of other countries because of government programs available to them, programs such as Old Age Security (OAS) and the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) are not substantial enough to pull anyone out of poverty. Non-refundable tax credits guaranteed by age, disability, or medical amounts, are of no use to people who pay no income taxes; their generosity is reserved for the more affluent. One group at high risk is seniors at the top end of the low-income category. Any money they do receive from personal investments is often largely clawed back from public pension income they would have received had they not had these extra savings. As a result, many senior women in Canada survive on incomes of $12,000/year and even less.

The current shortage of affordable housing in Canada affects people in vulnerable situations most, including older people. The lack of national plans for drugs, home care, and extended care is also a stark reality. Older people require things to keep them independent: hearing aids, glasses, walkers, and other aids. Older women have extra needs that older men may not have. A reliable car or a security system may be more important to them to help them feel safe, especially when older women are sometimes a target for crime.

Your financial future
The picture we have painted is somewhat bleak. Women experience inequality in different ways at all times in their lives - a difficult reality to accept at the beginning of the 20th century. In order to counter this trend we need to join with other women and work for a world that has a place for girls and women of all ages. At the same time, no matter who we are, we must take the time to learn from the experiences of other women and not think that we are somehow immune to becoming part of the statistics ourselves. One of the ways we can do that is by taking time to plan ahead. For a few of our suggestions, visit Planning Ahead.

To learn about programs like OAS, CPP, and GIS, that may be available to you, visit Canada's Retirement Income System.

What do you think?
Do these stories resonate with your experiences? Write us at stories@unpac.ca and tell us what you think. If you are from outside Canada, please write and tell us about the economics of age and aging in your part of the world.

1 Social Planning Council of Winnipeg. Promises Not Kept: 2001 Report on Child Poverty in Manitoba.
2 Women's Work: A report by the Canadian Labour Congress, 1997.

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