One of the themes of this year’s International Day of Older Persons is the resilience and contributions of older women. The Uncertain Futures participatory research team interviewed 100 women over 50 about their experiences of paid and unpaid work. In this blog, Dr Elaine Dewhurst from the Law School and the Manchester Institute for Collaborative Research on Ageing (MICRA), Dr Sarah Campbell (Senior Lecturer in Integrated Health and Social Care at Manchester Metropolitan University), Tendayi Madzunzu (the Development Manager for the Zimbabwe Women’s Organisation), Marie Greenhalgh (founder/director of Wythenshawe Good Neighbours), Atiha Chaudry (a community champion, Chair of the GM BAME network, Associate Lead for the Manchester BME network and founder of the Rafiki Food Network), and Rohina Ghafoor (a black disabled feminist living in Manchester) discuss the contributions older women have made through their paid and voluntary work.
- The Research Team of the Uncertain Futures project conducted 100 interviews with women over 50 years of age in Greater Manchester to hear their stories about their experiences of paid and unpaid work.
- They found that while women make significant, often extraordinary, voluntary contributions to their communities, they are seldom paid or recognised for this labour.
- While greater recognition is a good first step, policy responses are needed to redress the growing gap in economic and experiential value of this work.
The Uncertain Futures participatory research team interviewed 100 women: magistrates, community activists, managers, administrators, carers, childminders, teachers, mothers, grandparents. All were over 50 years of age. Many were working. Many were unpaid. This is the common story of women who have given so much of their lives to unpaid work of varying kinds – contributing to their families, their communities and to their city in an invaluable way. Yet the contribution of these women is rarely celebrated or even recognised. Indeed, for many of the women we spoke to, this was the first time their stories had been heard. And the message was clear: “I wish our voice, especially women voice, rings out around the world and they believe we are valuable” (Fatima).
Theoretically, the voluntary contributions of older women can be categorised into three groups. Those who are carers for relatives, friends and family members; those who are community activists or ‘neighbourhood keepers’; and those who can be described as more traditional ‘volunteers’, working in a variety of capacities within businesses, organisations, and state bodies. However, in practice, the distinction is more blurred with many women taking on multiple roles. For example, working as carers and community activists or working as community activists alongside working voluntarily in another capacity. Women’s voluntary contributions are many, varied and multifaceted meaning that their contribution to society is immense yet still wildly undervalued.
Care work is valuable, but often unpaid
Perhaps one of the most common but also most unseen contributions of older women is as unpaid carers. Whether as mothers, wives, partners, sisters, neighbours, or grandparents, many of the women we interviewed were actively engaged in caring for someone; often with little recognition and no economic support.
Sahar An Nissa is 62 years old and is caring not only for her daughter but also for her grandchildren. She explains: ‘One [grandchild] is with me because my daughter is needy. She is, she got learning difficulty from when she was young. Now she’s a mum, I need, she need help to raise this child’. Like many of the women we spoke to, her voluntary contribution did not just end at home. She also is active in the community helping neighbours and raising money for those in need. And while Sahar An Nissa is ‘happy to be busy’, she also admits that ‘[s]ometimes I feel like I need a break’.
The physical toll of caring for others was also shared by other women. Löis is 57 and cares for her 86-year-old mother with dementia while also working full-time. She describes her role as a carer as ‘the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life’. Additionally, as Salima, aged 50, remarks this caring responsibility can often arise on the back of a lifetime of unpaid caring: ‘Women … tend to have the care and the responsibility for the children when they’re younger. And then after 50, you start looking after your parents. So different care, and different responsibilities’.
It is also clear from speaking to these women that their voluntary work is also performing a vital community and societal service by propping up already overstretched public services and community organisations. From assisting neighbours, to running community projects, to performing frontline work during the pandemic, the story of their contribution is significant. Murkurata, who is 64, recalls having to give up paid work due to illness but taking on voluntary work as a means of giving back to the community. Now she is an unpaid director of a company which creates opportunities for prisoners, offenders, and ex-offenders. Femme Capable provides another extraordinary example of community activism. At the age of 50, she turned her community social enterprise, which was no longer able to operate due to Covid-19 restrictions, into a community food bank and delivery service to support families in need during lockdown with culturally appropriate food. She says that: ‘I want to give… It’s not that I know a lot, but the little I know, I want to share it’.
Unpaid, but also undervalued
Despite the significance of these contributions, there is little economic or experiential value attributed to it. The women themselves are acutely aware of this and are open about the often poor employment outcomes for older women where their voluntary work is not valued. Löis, 57, felt her experience as a carer for her mother who lives with dementia was undervalued: “[O]verall, do I think I’m valued? Is this work valued by all of us that are doing it? No, not at all”.
This has even more profound significance to those for whom voluntary work has been encouraged almost as a stepping stone into paid employment or as a means of maintaining skills while waiting on immigration decisions to be processed. Victoria who is 63, despite her eventual success at securing paid employment, recounted how her multitude of experiences in the voluntary sector were chronically undervalued by employers: “Even though I had references as well from volunteering in the charity I was volunteering in, it wasn’t the same, and it wasn’t enough hours.” This undervaluing coupled with increasing age-related, as well as other forms of, discrimination means that improving economic and social outcomes for older women is an uphill struggle.
What can be done?
Recognition of the value older women bring to society, their employers, their communities, and their families through their significant voluntary contributions is an important first step in improving these economic and social outcomes. However, recognition alone will not be sufficient to bridge the ever-increasing gap in pension and retirement security for women. Economic and experiential value also needs to be attributed to their work.
Economically, there is a disconnect between the contribution made by older women and the economic value they receive in return. For example, carers’ allowance can be reduced or discontinued once a woman reaches pension age meaning she still retains the expenses of a carer but now has more limited resources. This can be easily redressed through ensuring that the carers’ allowance is maintained in full after pension age.
Experientially, there is also a disconnect between the experience an older woman gains from her voluntary service and the value which employers and the state place on such experience. The most recent changes to social security law announced last week will require benefits claimants working up to 15 hours a week to increase their earnings or face a reduction in their benefits. This will have considerable economic implications for older women who often provide essential voluntary work around their paid work and once again devalues the contribution made through unpaid work. Updating the terms on which Universal Credit payments are made to accommodate voluntary work would help to prevent women from having to choose between social security and the social value they create through their unpaid work. Additionally, as already is the case with agency workers, there is a argument to be made forvolunteers to have priority access to information about paid roles with the organization they are working for to increase their access to opportunities and as a reflection of the value of their voluntary contribution.
If we return to Fatima once more, her call for “women[‘s] voice[s]” to “ring out around the world” is a vital first step in raising awareness of the valuable contribution older women make and to the disconnection between this contribution and the economic and experiential value attributed to this work.
Keen to highlight these injustices and inequalities, the artist Suzanne Lacy embarked on Uncertain Futures as a participatory artwork which was evolved over time to incorporate this vital research and policy element. The Uncertain Futures exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery runs until March 2023.
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