“Pprecariousness means living in a state of insecurity, worry or stress; it means there is no backup plan. Former nurse Louise Ihlein shared those words with the Guardian this week, in a story about how taking time off to care for children left her financially insecure in her 60s.
The story elicited hundreds of responses from readers, many of whom have similar stories of not having financial support as they age, despite devoting years of their lives to caring for others.
Here are some of their stories*.
I am 47 years old. I worked in finance to earn a lot of money [until] I was 33 years old. I had a baby, I wanted to be there for her, I didn’t resume my career. Was babysitting a way to earn an income while sticking around as a ‘mom’. The husband was still running his business and his work situation of course did not change at all!
Separated from husband. Met a new partner, had a second baby at 37. She is disabled and needs [24-hour] care. I had to give up childcare so no income. The new partner bailed out, I haven’t seen him in years. I take care of the second baby (now 9 years old) between 90 and 120 hours a week.
I have no money, no pension, no savings. I rely solely on the state. I am very grateful to have a council funded roof over my head. But I worry about the future.
Eventually, my daughter will have to go to a retirement home. I can’t take care of her forever. I will have spent decades caring for others and saving the government millions by being a home care provider and I will have nothing in the end.
We joke that I will be living in a trailer across my oldest daughter’s driveway. But really – this is no joke. This will be my reality. And my reward for years of service.
Now 60, I am struggling to re-enter the workforce after staying home to care for three children and moving between Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne for my husband’s career. Despite having a technical certificate, bachelor’s and master’s degree, I failed many jobs and finally got a part-time job using my technical certificate skills in a school, which I never applied for – I happened to be in the right place at the right time.
Due to health problems since my 50s, working full time would be too difficult for me. Luckily, I am very financially secure thanks to my husband and my retirement pension that I accumulated in a professional civil servant role that I had before I had children. Now my children are all college educated, well adjusted and contributing to society and I am proud that my hands-on parenting has played a part in their success. However, my life could have been so different if I hadn’t had the chance I had.
The issues raised here only go to show that the best way forward is some sort of adequate universal basic income that is paid to everyone without exception.
Some people say the cost would be ‘prohibitive’, but if you count all the money spent on social assistance supposedly targeted at people living in poverty, tax breaks for housing investments and other middle class welfare, plus the tax breaks for the rich and some of the fossil fuel companies that don’t pay taxes at all plus all this outsourcing of welfare and training, it could be a best option. It would certainly be much simpler, it would be done through the tax office and eliminate a lot of paperwork.
Then the “need” to judge others might actually fade away and the social fabric of this country might be able to be repaired.
Then we can be proud of who we are as a society.
I had a very upsetting conversation with someone I thought was a friend a few months ago. I have had derailments in life and have expressed concern about a future as described by the author. My “friend” kept saying how much better off she was financially than me, because she married a man with wealth and family assets. Even after saying twice that such comments are hard for me to hear, she continued.
The lack of empathy was staggering. Just as the author has experienced, and as some of the comments here show. If you haven’t planned your life perfectly from your 20s (because of course it was possible to predict in the 1980s what the 2010s would look like and beyond), then so be it. You get poverty, homelessness and despair, and a poke in the eye if you talk about it.
So many older women are left to rot in poverty by precisely the same system that urged them to stay home to care for children (especially Howard government policies that encouraged childbearing and education for women).
The pattern of men leaving their wives and taking more of what should be shared persists for the generation of women who have had children and worked part-time. Now, like Louise, they struggle to meet the demands of a punitive, suspicious and mean-spirited “welfare” system and survive in constant fear of a crisis that will topple them.
For those who don’t own their own home, it’s even worse. The system needs a lot of tweaking so that women in Louise’s situation aren’t treated the same as the stereotype of the work-shy youngster sitting at home on his couch nursing a [gaming] console.
* Stories have been edited for clarity.