By Ros Wong

I am obsessed with neoliberalism, creative financial processes and capitalism, and the gendered dynamics they reproduce.  Financialisation was a process that incorporated all three with direct and indirect effects. Thus, financialisation grounded both my M.A. and the PhD I commenced in 2015. My research centred on women in business across Australia. My doctoral thesis investigates why many self-employed women in Australia are unable to secure economic stability in old age.

Consecutive neoliberal policy reforms in Australia since the 1980s have shifted financial dependency in old age from state pensions to individualised economic self-sufficiency. This re-framing of retirement policies from state-sponsored to individual responsibility appear to be inclusive and equitable, but inherently marginalises women, especially those that operate their own businesses. Superannuation policy is fundamentally tied to waged employment, effectively othering self-employed women who are not compelled by any legal obligation to make superannuation payments. The old age pension that many self-employed women previously retired on is now harder to access with old age financial provisioning increasingly individualised. Although the Super Guarantee (the legislated requirement for employers to pay superannuation benefits on behalf of employees) does benefit some entrepreneurial women, many still lag their male counterparts. For example this could be due to disruptive work patterns, precarious labour, emotional obligations to family and community The lived experience for self-employed women is a day to day existence of increased indebtedness and precarity impacted by global markets fluctuations. Against that backdrop, federal and state policy changes have affected their visions of the assumed Australian right to a comfortable retirement. Although some self-employed women are successful at retirement planning, many are not.

Retirement is not just about saving money. There are so many pieces to this puzzling process that need to be joined, so that policies can support women, not entrench inequitable outcomes. To shed light on this process, I developed a transdisciplinary multi-level model of retirement planning based upon the areas of finance, social relationships and health to understand the complexities and influences of retirement planning at a macro, meso and micro level of Australian society. This model was designed to reveal the intersectionality and inequality across society, but retirement planning is overlaid with constraints and moral obligations. Applying the theoretical framework of claustropolitanism (Redhead 2018), offered the research a diverse analytical approach to understand post global financial crisis (GFC) Australia.

Three studies were conducted utilising both qualitative and quantitative methods. Over two hundred self-employed women took part in the studies conducted across Australia in 2017-2018.  Analysis of the data revealed that there is a false assumption in successive government policies that perpetuate the gender gap of superannuation, with the promotion of individualistic superannuation plans for self-employed women.

Over seventy-five per cent of participants stated at the beginning of the interview their savings would not be enough to secure a ‘good’ retirement. Those self-employed women who did not fit the male wage-earner, nuclear family model assumptions where the head of the family will ‘look after’ the female in retirement, were rendered invisible, inconsequential and failed by current policies. These flawed assumptions of social policy do and will continue to create the cruel optimism of self-employed women’s retirement funding. My research offers a new theoretical understanding to the embedded social structures within Australian society that promote inequality and under-pin self-employed women’s high risk of poverty in old age. Adopting an intersectional approach demonstrated that previous retirement research dominated by the life-cycle hypothesis implies a financially secure retirement is achievable by all rational decision-making Australians but fatally ignores that impact of current policies and women’s lived experiences.

Thus, public, and private realms have become a place of harm where the capitalist individualistic neoliberalist trajectory of retirement planning has exploited and disposed of some groups for the benefit and prosperity of others.