As populations are now much more likely than ever to survive into old age, understanding how gender impacts all domains of wellbeing in later life has become critical. In this blog, Professor Debora Price argues that all policy analysis should be sensitive to gender and its interactions with other characteristics of disadvantage in later life.
- It is often difficult to see women’s poverty in later life because while they are married or cohabiting, for all official statistics their resources are aggregated with their partners.
- Measures of healthy life expectancy and disability-free life expectancy show that women live with much greater morbidity and disability, for longer, and for a greater proportion of their remaining lives.
- Women are principally disadvantaged through their lack of material resources. Their gendered caring roles across the lifecourse structure their whole lives, including their interactions with paid work and family, which in turn impacts markedly on their material circumstances later on.
- The key to understanding inequalities is to collect data on the items of interest, disaggregate all data by gender, and ensure that all policy analysis is sensitive to gender and other characteristics of disadvantage in later life.
While there have been very old people throughout recorded history, the last century witnessed great demographic change with the ageing of populations around the world, especially the ageing of the ‘oldest old’. This is of course a triumph for the progress we have made on clean water, global poverty, raising living standards, improved child and maternal mortality and health, and the prevention and treatment of both infectious and chronic disease. People are now much more likely than ever to survive into mid-life, and then increasingly likely to survive into old age. As the focus of policymakers, researchers, communities and families therefore shifts to those in later life, understanding how and why some groups fare better than others across domains has become a critical question for the coming century. This is so not only for those countries and regions who have already aged, like ours, but for those that will age with unprecedented rapidity in coming decades, especially low and middle income countries.
All societies are organised by gender, and gendered inequalities begin early in life. At each turn, those life experiences will then influence what happens later in life. Gender therefore impacts on all domains of wellbeing in later life. While it is true that women tend to be better socially connected than men in old age, in other areas they are disadvantaged. This is principally through women lacking material resources. They are especially disadvantaged in income, wealth, housing and transport, and living with a far greater incidence of disability and ill health than men. For most people, women’s gendered caring roles across the lifecourse structure their whole lives, including their interactions with paid work and family, which in turn impacts markedly on their material circumstances later on. It is also very important to acknowledge that while about 80% of men die married, this is true for only a minority of women, who mostly live on their own towards the end of their lives.
In later life, women have much less state and private pension and are much less likely to be in good quality paid work. Although we have little data on later life, they have poorer housing through the life course and this is therefore unlikely to change in old age. It is often difficult to see women’s poverty in later life because while they are married or cohabiting, for all official statistics their resources are aggregated with their partners. We observe older women apparently catapulted into poverty by widowhood or divorce, although this really is just a reflection of how low their material resources were within their partnerships. We know from decades of research that financial and material resources are not shared equally within households and that there is often hidden poverty for women behind closed doors. Domestic violence in later life is also a subject that we know very little about. However, even where this is not so and a partnership is a strong and supportive one, when a partner’s resources are lost on widowhood or divorce, this can have severe consequences for women.
The discussion about gender and health is complicated because women in almost all countries of the world have greater life expectancy than men. This is partly believed to be a genetic advantage of some sort, but is also because men have, over the lifecourse, a greater propensity to smoke, undertake risky behaviours, have dangerous jobs and it is men that are required to fight (and die) in wars. These are clear gendered disadvantages for men. We are increasingly realising however that what matters for those who survive into old age is how well you are able to live, free from disability and chronic ill health. Measures have been developed therefore of healthy life expectancy, or disability-free life expectancy, and on each of these, women are greatly disadvantaged. Women live with much greater morbidity and disability, for longer, and for a greater proportion of their remaining life after 65.
Inequalities in later life
How gender intersects with other disadvantaged outcomes is a very important question, and one that we know far too little about. We especially need to understand inequalities in later life on lines of gender and ethnicity, gender and social class, and gender and marital history.
We have seen official data move in the opposite direction, with the individual income series discontinued, and important reports like the Pensioners Income Series containing no meaningful analysis of gender. Housing, wealth, illness, disability, food insecurity, cold homes and access to transport are also important measures. We need a full understanding of caring roles, and the impact of these in later life too.
For city-regions, the key to understanding gendered inequalities is to collect data on the items of interest, disaggregate all data by gender, and ensure that all policy analysis is sensitive not only to gender but also interactions with other characteristics of disadvantage in later life.
This article was originally published in On Gender, a collection of essays providing analysis and ideas on taking a gendered lens to policy in Greater Manchester and devolved regions across the UK. You can read the full publication here.