The cruel optimism of self-employed women’s retirement planning

Author: Ros Wong

Wong, Ros, 2020 The cruel optimism of self-employed women’s retirement planning, Flinders University, College of Business, Government and Law

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This doctoral research examines why many self-employed women are unable to save for retirement. Adopting an intersectional approach to the research, I argue that the assumptions of social policy do and will continue to create the cruel optimism of self-employed women’s retirement funding. Entrepreneurial women have a false consciousness that they will not face financial insecurity in old age. However, Australian self-employed women have been identified as the ‘new super poor’ (Riley 2011) regarding superannuation and, coupled with women’s longer life expectancy, it is highly probable that many will live in poverty during their later years. My original contribution to knowledge is the development of a multi-level model of retirement planning. This model was configured to reveal the intersectionality across a woman’s life course that demonstrates that retirement planning is a complex and corrugated process for many self-employed women. Retirement planning is a challenging process for many self-employed women, as this group of women have no legal requirement to save for their future, unlike waged employees. Also, consecutive and continuing neoliberal policies in Australia from the 1980s have shifted state dependency in old age from state pensions to individualised economic self-sufficiency (Connell 2014). The era of austerity post GFC has redefined Australian entrepreneurial women’s end of life trajectory. The new retirement operates through cycles of continual paid employment, financial insecurity, poverty, and homelessness, borne of flawed social policies and highly volatile global financial markets.

Retirement planning is entwined with constraints and moral obligations that are operationalised at the macro, meso and micro levels of society. Self-employed women must now navigate the macro, meso and micro structures affecting business income. The impact of these structures creates not only instability due to post GFC capitalism, but where and how much money is allocated for retirement planning. Societal structures intersect across finance, social relationships and health. Therefore, I argue that new models are needed to address the perpetual gender gap in superannuation balances at retirement.

The research was grounded in a single case study of Australian self-employed women between eighteen and eighty-seven. A mixed approach using interviews and surveys was utilised because of the opportunity to gather both rich data and generalise results. Three studies were then conducted: twenty-seven semi-structured interviews informed the construction of Studies 2 and 3, which consisted of a workshop and a survey. The data was analysed using software programs NVIVO and SSPS. These results can transform the project of retirement planning for the next generation of entrepreneurial women.

Offering a new theoretical framework demonstrates that the gender gap in superannuation will continue unless we rectify continued marginalisation of sectors of the Australian population, especially women who are self-employed. The development of new policies that are inclusive for all is a critical priority for social policy. Applying the theoretical framework of claustropolitanism (Redhead 2018), this thesis provides a new and analytical approach to post GFC inequalities that undergird retirement planning. Social policy and economic trends have entrenched gender inequality in Australia centred on androcentrism. Thus, androcentric norms are ‘institutionalised formally and informally’ (Fraser 1996, p.16) within Australian society. This is demonstrated by women retiring with inadequate funds to ensure economic security in old age, regulated by superannuation polices that do not acknowledge the difference in women’s lived experiences (Vlachantoni, 2012). The self-employed women in this research were unlikely to achieve their imagined retirement outcome projected by present fiscal policies and financial institutions.

Keywords: Retirement Planning, Self-Employed, Women, Australia, Claustropolitanism

Subject: Policy and Administration thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2020
School: College of Business, Government and Law
Supervisor: Tara Brabazon