Deborah Jacobs has tried everything to stay out of unemployment. Bookkeeping, massage, childcare, counselling, even started her own newspaper in the 1990s. And yet, at 63, Jacobs finds herself languishing on unemployment and in poverty – discarded by an economy that refuses to make room for older women.
Before she got into public housing, Jacobs would choose between her medication or electricity bills and got “very good at all different types of instant noodles”, her one meal of the day.
“When I was in hospital they actually gave me an iron infusion to help with my healing because I was so iron deficient,” Jacobs says.
Jacobs is the face of a change in Australian society so stark, one wonders how it seems to have crept up on federal politicians who for years have done little about it.
When the federal budget was handed down on Tuesday, it quickly drew criticism for an absence of policies aimed at helping older women.
Ministers have pointed to the shared benefits of infrastructure spending – “women drive on roads”, said one – but a new job subsidy for those under 35 may actually make life harder for those like Jacobs. The government points out similar subsidies are already in place for older people.
Jacobs’ slide into long-term unemployment repudiates all the ugly stereotypes about people on the jobseeker payment, once called Newstart. Yet even she admits she was once wrong about the myth of so-called “dole bludgers”.
“I’m still staggered at how many older people are on Newstart,” the 63-year-old says.
The change has indeed been staggering. Experts now say Australia’s jobseeker payment has become a “pre-age-pension payment” for older people who find themselves out of work and left stranded in poverty.
Women over 50 made up only 5% of all jobseeker recipients in 2001. Last year, they were one-in-five. Meanwhile, a third of all women on jobseeker aged over 55 had been on the payment for more than five years, up from 13% in 2009.
When Jacobs, then 50, lost her weekend job at a child contacts service in 2008 – she says she was forced out due to a dispute with management – she felt she still had good prospects.
“I thought that I was on the right track,” Jacobs says. “I never thought I’d be doing things as tough as I’ve done it.”
It’s not like she’d spent long on unemployment payments before. Jacobs left school at year 10 in 1974, took up a secretarial course, and worked mostly as a bookkeeper during the 1970s recession in Queensland. “I was retrenched four times, mainly by being taking over by computers,” she says. “I thought, I’m going to learn computer modules, and so I did it.”
She married and had two children – “I still did lots of stuff like Tupperware and Avon” – and after she escaped a “bad marriage”, she got back on her feet selling ads and writing stories at a local paper in Sydney. Through the 90s, she started her own paper, Engadine’s Locals’ Choice, with her sister, a graphic designer.
Things went sour, but she got back up again. First, she did the books at a bull bar manufacturer, then cobbled together some savings to start her own second-hand furniture shop in Adelaide, where she still lives. Once again, it collided with the changing times.
“The whole bottom fell out of the market with Ikea coming on board and all the flat packs becoming more popular,” Jacobs says. “People wanted new, cheap and available.”
Jacobs has retrained again and again: in childcare and massage. She spent much of the global financial crisis on Austudy learning to be a counsellor.
Now, like so many older women on jobseeker, she’s stuck.
Older women locked out of the workforce
A 2018 Human Rights Commission survey found one in three HR professions would not hire someone above a certain age – and 65% nominated over 50 as “too old”. Other research has found older jobseekers are often seen as “rusty” or “threatening” (because they’re overqualified for entry-level positions). It’s argued older women face an “appearance bar” that makes them “invisible”.
Cassandra Goldie, chief executive of the Australian Council of Social Services (Acoss), says women, and especially single parents, are more likely to take time out of the paid workforce to care for children or elderly parents.
“This creates a gap in their careers and résumés which typically makes it harder to get back into employment, especially full-time positions,” she says.
Those in low-paid roles are more likely to be affected than older professional women with assets, says the age discrimination commissioner, Dr Kay Patterson. In fact, there’s a “great divide” which “seems to be widening,” Patterson adds.
Jacobs took time off to care for her children, but once they reached school age it was back to “bookkeeping full-time in between having my sons at school and all of that”.
Since 2008, the closest she can get to paid work now is through volunteering, which allows her to meet her mutual obligations to Centrelink. She is a veteran of a local mental health program. “I’m generally on the roster to take any after-hours phone calls, and calm them down or refer them onto other agencies,” Jacobs says.
It comes naturally to Jacobs, but there are drawbacks. Her health has deteriorated in the past five years, but her job agency won’t accept her medical certificates, so the volunteering is compulsory. “When it means you need to take phone calls or send emails while you’re hooked up to machines in hospital, it’s a bit rough,” she says.
Other times she’s been passed over for jobs where she volunteers, beaten to the position by someone “working in exactly this same job”. “I was doing the same, voluntarily,” Jacobs says. “I was also 20 years older or more.”
Left to languish in poverty
Despite her ailing health, Jacobs is trapped on jobseeker payment due to decades of policy changes – led by John Howard, but also the Gillard and Abbott governments – which aimed to cut welfare spending and increase workforce participation.
Those goals were achieved. But someone like Jacobs is the collateral damage. She rattles off her ailments: a heart condition, deep vein thrombosis in her legs, osteoarthritis in her knee, and several hernias that have needed operating. Until a recent surgery in July, she carried a stoma bag that was a source of “self-loathing”.
Yet her applications for the disability pension keep getting knocked back. Her rapidly changing health means her conditions are not “stabilised”.
It is a common story. Today, about 40% of people on jobseeker payment have, like Jacobs, medical conditions; in 2007 the figure was 7%.
Jacobs won’t be eligible for the age pension until she’s 67. Other older women, the budget office notes, have been caught up by a change to the single parenting payment that kicks them onto jobseeker payment when their child turns eight.
It wouldn’t be so bad if jobseeker payments weren’t so low, experts say. Australian National University Prof Peter Whiteford points to the situation when the Keating government left office: the gap between what a job seeker and pensioner would receive over a year added up to $1,000. “Now it’s $9,000.”
“The Keating government did a lot to get towards equality between job seekers and pensions,” Whiteford says. “Their assumption was that would continue. It hasn’t.”
The government hasn’t committed to lifting the base rate of jobseeker – meaning it would next year revert to $565 a fortnight, or about $40 a day – but the temporary coronavirus supplement actually lifted Jacobs’ jobseeker payment above the pension and the poverty line.
After the supplement was cut on 25 September, she still gets about $862-a-fortnight, which is only about $80 a fortnight less than the age pension.
Jacobs’ hope now is the government will lift the jobseeker payment to the rate of the pension. Otherwise it’s a long wait to 67.
“The amount of people out there that can’t support their families because they lost their jobs because of Covid, just as qualified as me, if not more, and I’m up against them?” she says. “It just doesn’t seem right.”