Monday 6 February 2012


The Hon Susan Ryan AO, Age Discrimination Commissioner

Financial Rights are Human Rights for Older Women

The Hon. Susan Ryan AO
Age Discrimination Commissioner
Australian Human Rights Commission

Women in Super NSW lunch
Intercontinental Hotel, Phillip Street, Sydney

6 February 2012

I’d like to begin by acknowledging the Gadigal people of the Eora nation – the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today.

My first fact for the day...and it’s a new one: in the Australian Financial Review on 1 February 2012, we were told that many women born today are likely to live until 95.

Even those of here today who were born quite a few years ago are looking to living into our eighties. Compared with our great grandmothers, this is almost one whole extra lifetime to experience... and, to support with earnings and savings.

If we do retire at the ‘traditional’ age, around 60-65, many of us will have to find the money to fund up to 30 years of retirement.

This realisation puts the matter of adequacy of super into an even sharper focus.

It certainly underlines and puts in capitals our need to understand our finances and have some plans to manage them sensibly, avoiding disaster and poverty.

That’s at the individual level.

At the level of human society, taking the global dimension, we are going through a massive demographic shift, larger than anything that has gone before, and it is happening faster too.

In just a couple of generations, we have acquired an extra lifetime to live.

And along with living longer we are living in better health than ever before. Professor Ian Hickie (University of Sydney) was quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald on 28 January telling us that older brains are healthy, and that work keeps them that way. The health, mental and physical, of those who are employed is better than the unemployed, and this is true at all ages.

Today’s active (non-smoking) 70 year olds have brains that look 10-15 years younger than those of their parents’ generation at the same age.

Women and income

I want to set out for you some of the implications of this massive change for women, particularly the effects on women’s income, before and after retirement.

Superannuation of course plays a part, but we will all agree that it should play a bigger part; it should become a much stronger element of older women’s income security than it is today.

Let’s look at the income status of women in Australia. While the data I will quote will show that it is unsatisfactory, and poorer than men’s income status, it is better than it was a generation ago.

Over the past 25 years the proportion of women earning their own incomes has risen, and women’s levels of economic autonomy have increased. In 1982, women had a 31 percent share of all income received by men and women. By 2006 this share had increased to 38 percent. Nearly all of the increases occurred in the years between 1982 to 1996 at the time of Hawke and Keating governments. Since that time women’s gains have slowed.[1]

The improvements were due to increases in women’s educational qualifications and opportunities for training and work-related experience - along with the implementation of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, and the Affirmative Action (Equality in Employment) Act 1986.[2]

Today, women still lag behind men in income, and this disparity continues throughout the life cycle.

In 2010, the mean weekly earnings for employed (full and part time) men amounted to $1,218, and for employed women $805.[3]

At ages 65 and older, the mean income for men in work (full and part time) is $1,024, and for women in work, $669.[4]

Women and the age pension

The reliance on the age pension is a good indicator of the relative position of women in comparison to men. Approximately 80 percent of all Australians aged 65 and older are reliant to some degree on the Age Pension.[5] In 2007, 55 percent of over 65s were wholly dependent on the aged pension[6] and women make up 58 percent of this group.[7] Women also account for nearly 69 per cent of people on Carer’s Payments.[8] Note that this payment attracts no Superannuation Guarantee.

You may know that in Australia, the Commonwealth Age Pension was introduced in 1909[9] at a time when the life expectancy for men was 55 and for women it was 59.[10] Women were eligible for the Pension at age 60 and men at 65. Obviously, with life expectancy in the 50s, most people didn’t live long enough to receive it.

Despite the dramatic improvements in life expectancy, the massive cultural change I have described, we are still stuck with the 1909 model.

Over a century later, our society’s expectations, our policies, our employment practices lag decades behind the realities of demographic change. Right now, men can expect to live to 79 and women to 84[11], with these limits continually rising. Yet many government policies, still assume we will retire and disappear at about 60 or 65, and indeed often those policies make it difficult to work beyond these artificial limits.

This is a massive problem, for the individual and for the national economy.

If people are prevented from working longer than these out-dated expectations, they will have to live on the Age Pension for decades – and if this is the only source of income, it will be a mean way to live out that extra lifetime we have acquired.[12] One in four Australians over the age of 65 live below the OECD poverty threshold.[13] The 2006 ABS Census showed us that there were large increases in the number of older people who were homeless. Over 18,000 people aged 55 or over were homeless on Census night in 2006; 4,000 more than in 2001.[14]

The lack of work opportunities for older Australians contributes to this dismal picture.

So you will understand why my top priority is to advocate for older Australians, men and women, to have the opportunity to work up to and beyond their 60s, should they be willing and able to do so.

Women, financial literacy and retirement planning

But eventually nearly everyone will retire. The crucial question then becomes, have they saved enough to live on with dignity and security?

Too often the answer to this question for women is no. And too often they are badly prepared for this reality.

Despite earning less over a lifetime than men, and therefore having lower super savings, women have been shown to be less financially literate than men and less likely to plan their finances.

In a recent study on financial behaviour, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) found that women are harder to engage on issues of financial literacy.[15]

Women are less likely to seek financial advice or financial information. Fifty four percent of women compared with 45 percent of males had not engaged with any financial information in the 2011 ASIC survey. Older women aged 70 and over were even less likely to engage.[16]

Women are less likely to be reliant on super in retirement. In 2007, just over 7 percent of women compared with 15 percent of men, reported that their main source of retirement income was superannuation or annuity.[17]

It is sobering to consider that in 2011, ABS stats show around 60 percent of women aged 65-69 have no super.

Of those receiving super, the average payout for women is significantly less than a man’s - approximately $198,000 for men and $112,600 for women.

What can be done to assist women with retirement planning?

We need to target them with better, more accessible advice.

And in fact, some large scale projects are currently doing just this. Recently, the Australian Government asked ASIC to develop a National Financial Literacy Strategy.

This Strategy has a number of programs and some very good guides and online tools.[18]

ASIC’s Money Smart[19] offers programs for financial literacy educators and some internet-based resources for the Over 55s.

The NSW Older Women’s Network – OWN – has produced some excellent simple, accessible brochures warning women about financial abuse, again a problem experienced more by older women.

I am planning some new work on financial literacy that will build on the good work has been done

The aim is to help older people to understand and manage their finances better, and to resist financial bullying, scams and fraud.

Underpinning all this work aimed at assisting women to plan better, save more, work longer and finally enjoy a chosen retirement, is my objective of eliminating age discrimination, from our society generally and from the workforce in particular.

“Too old to work”

According to unemployed older people, the greatest barrier to employment is the perception by employers that they are too old. The ABS tells us that in July 2011, 18 percent of people over the age of 45 said they couldn’t get work because they were 'considered too old by employers'.[20]

In the recruitment context, age discrimination has been described as ‘systemic’, and we see job advertisements seeking applicants who are ‘young and dynamic’. We see practices of culling applications of ‘anyone over the age of 45’. Candidates are asked ‘what year did you graduate’ or ‘how old are your children’ (proxies for age discrimination).

Most age discrimination complaints received by the Australian Human Rights Commission have been in the area of employment. And of these – most complaints occur because an employee has been considered ‘too old’ for the job.

The work related complaints at the Commission are rising. They increased by 44 percent from 2010 to 2011.

There are documented cases of older workers being denied access to training and promotion opportunities or targeted for redundancy. We hear of age-based bullying and isolation in the workplace.

This extensive age discrimination is not only illegal, it undermines our economy.

How can we change it?

Governments, policy makers, analysts and increasingly strategic employers agree that we should keep people in the workforce as long as they are capable and willing.

Benefits of an older workforce

ABS studies show that those of us who stay on at work past the notional ‘retirement age’ have improved health and well-being.[21] Health experts like Professor Ian Hickie see employment as the best protection against mental and physical illness.

The government is focussed on Treasury projections that show that, without changing practices, an ageing population will add about $60 billion to government expenditure by 2050.[22]

The serious workforce shortages we hear so much about also necessitate a new and more constructive approach to older workers

Expert analysis has identified the problem and offered the solution. Deloitte recently published a report entitled: “Where is your next worker?”[23]

The report tells us that people aged 15 to 54 are working at capacity and we now need to find other workers to fill employment gaps.... we need to engage older people in the workforce, beyond the notional retirement age. The report says:

...the population aged 55-70 is a massive untapped source of productive capacity.

Businesses will need to think differently about staff engagement and find the right strategies to keep their older workers longer. Some forward looking companies have started to do this, and I plan to showcase their efforts nationally so as to inspire the others.

Flexible work arrangements

In part the answers are pretty straight forward.

First, more flexible work arrangements are needed. Part time work is not a novelty and should be offered to older workers.

Workers compensation and income protection insurance

Acting as barriers to obstruct this flexibility, however, in workers compensation and income insurance we have age bars that can leave employees unprotected after 65.

I am working toward changing these discriminatory rules.

It is difficult to know how hard it will be to get these changes.

The workers compensation age limits seem to reflect a view that older people are more prone to accidents and illness. Where is the evidence?

The ABS Work Related Injuries report found that people aged 65 years and over recorded the lowest rate of work-related injuries and illnesses of all age groups with 30 per 1,000 people.[24]

Queensland, and more recently WA, have removed the age limits on their workers comp. schemes. It must be possible for the other States and Territories and the Commonwealth to do the same.

We see the same problems in income protection insurance, essential for the self-employed and people not covered under workers comp. Most people buy their income protection through their super funds because it’s cheaper and easier to get cover. However, like workers compensation, it cuts out at 60 or 65 years and income protection premiums increase with age.

Fairness, both in workers compensation and income insurance provisions for people who work beyond 65, is an essential part of facilitating people to work longer.

My work priorities

A summary

At the Australian Human Rights Commission we are dedicated to ensuring all Australians can live free from discrimination with their human rights respected and protected.

My role is to attack age discrimination in all of its manifestations and add to the exercise of human rights across our entire society

As Age Discrimination Commissioner I am working with employers, human resource professional and recruiters to try to remove barriers to older workers continuing in jobs.

Changes to workers comp and income insurance are part of this strategy.

As well, conscious of the role of government as employer and provider of crucial programs and services, I have proposed a national audit of all Commonwealth national laws and policies that have age bars or that are age discriminatory.

The Attorney General has already decided to do this and I expect details to be announced soon.

I have referred to the work I am planning to help older Australians towards financial literacy.

My other major priority is a general attack on age discriminatory attitudes and practices across the community.

To assist in shifting negative attitudes towards older people and ageing I have recently launched an on-line ‘age positive’ initiative. People from anywhere in Australia send in stories, with photos, of older people doing positive things: in their communities as volunteers, in the workforce, in the arts or with their families.

I am pleased to report that I find a lot of support in the community, among employers and even in the media for all these plans.

Age discrimination is a scourge on our society and a practice that has no place in a democracy dedicated to fairness and equality.

In defeating age discrimination we will not only advance the exercise of basic human rights of older Australians, we also enrich our society and grow our economy.

I hope we all join in the project of ensuring that that extra lifetime we have awaiting us can be lived fully and happily, knowing that society values us all regardless of age.

[1] ABS 4102.0, Australian Social Trends 2008: Women's incomes. At: (Viewed 23 November 2011).
[2] ABS 4102.0, Australian Social Trends 2008: Women's incomes. At: (Viewed 23 November 2011).
[3] ABS, Summary of Findings, 6310.0 – Employee Earnings, benefits and Trade Union membership, Australia, Aug 2010. At: (viewed 3 February 2012).
[4] ABS, Summary of Findings, 6310.0 – Employee Earnings, benefits and Trade Union membership, Australia, Aug 2010. At: (viewed 3 February 2012).
[5] Aged and Community Services Australia, An Ageing Australia, Fact Sheet 1, p.2. At (viewed 24 January 2012).
[6] Aged and Community Services Australia, An Ageing Australia, Fact Sheet 1, p.2. At (viewed 24 January 2012).
[7] Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs,‘Output group 2.1, Support for the aged’, Annual Report 2007-2008. At (viewed 24 January 2012).
[8] J. Harmer, Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, The Pension Review Report, 2009, p. 10. At (viewed 24 January 2012).
[9] Australian Bureau of Statistics, History of Pensions and other Benefits in Australia, 1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 1988. At:!OpenDocument
[10] ABS, 4102.0 - Australian Social Trends, Mar 2011. At:
[11] ABS, 4102.0 - Australian Social Trends, Mar 2011. At
[12]Old, Single and Poor: Using Microsimulation and Microdata to Analyse Poverty and the Impact
of Policy Change Among Older Australians. NATSEM, National Centre for Social and Economic
Modelling, University of Canberra.
[13] OECD, Australia, Highlights from OECD Pensions at a Glance 2009.
[14] Department of Families, Housing Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, The Road Home, Homelessness White Paper 2008, At (viewed 24 October 2011).
[15] Australian Securities and Investments Commission, Financial literacy and behavioural change, March 2011. At: (viewed 15 December 2011).
[16] Australian Securities and Investments Commission, Financial literacy and behavioural change, March 2011, pp. 27, 32. At: (viewed 15 December 2011).
[17] ABS, Employment Arrangements, Retirement and Superannuation, Australia, 6361.0 • April to July 2007. At: (Viewed 24 November 2011).
[18] Australian Securities and Investments Commission, Money Smart, Income sources in retirement. At: (viewed 15 December 2011).
[19] ASIC ‘Money Smart’
[20] Australian Bureau of Statistics, 6222.0 - Job Search Experience, Australia, July 2011. At (viewed 25 January 2012).
[21] Australian Bureau of Statistics, 4837.0.55.001 - Health of Mature Age Workers in Australia: A Snapshot, 2004-05. At (viewed 20 September 2011)
[22] The Treasury, ‘Aging Pressures and Spending’, The 2010 Intergenerational Report, 2010. At (viewed 5 October 2011).
[23] Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Ltd Australia, ‘Where is your next worker?’, Building the Lucky Country: Business imperatives for a prosperous Australia, 2011. At (viewed 6 February 2011).
[24] Australian Bureau of Statistics, 6324.0 - Work-Related Injuries, Australia, 2009-10, 2010. At (viewed 1 November 2010).