Pru Goward – Daily Life
I recently had coffee with a very nice, wealthy, 55-year-old male friend. He thought his life was missing something.
“What about repartnering?” I asked. His reply was dismissive. He takes a woman out once and the texts start arriving next day for invitations to family Christmases, holidays and dinners with her friends. “Women are too fast, it puts me right off.”
What comes next? A financially independent woman may fair better in attempting to find a new partner.
I persist with the idea and finally comes his declaration: “Look, I got divorced once and it took me years to work back to a nice house and decent superannuation. Yes, I would like to remarry, but she would need to have as much money as me or I might end up paying out again but without the years ahead to make it up.”
He could have added that, even if they didn’t split, his one retirement income was unlikely to keep them in the manner to which they would prefer to remain accustomed.
You want to find a new partner in your later years? Forget bringing him a nice dinner – build your super account instead. My friend and many like him are confirming the importance of female economic independence in the market for a partner.
Their considerations drive them to conclusions that are the complete opposite of conservative economists such as Gary Becker (who at least thought the marriage market was worth studying way back in 1972). Becker and others warned that feminism’s push for female economic independence would have grave consequences for the marriage market and lower the chances of career women ever marrying.
Marriage, he argued, was based on the female pursuit of economic security and the male pursuit of sex. (If I had known this sort of stuff was behind the opposition to women’s independence I would have redoubled my anger.) They were wrong. Yes, there is less marriage than there used to be but partnering has never gone out of fashion. The human need for intimacy runs deep and the desire for children, though less front of mind for men than women, is profound.
What’s more, economic analysis by Sweeney and Oppenheimer, among others, mostly confirms that earning power increases – not decreases – a woman’s likelihood of finding a partner. The exception seems to be for super high-achieving women, who are less likely to find a partner than their mothers were.
A woman’s elevated earning power increases her probability of finding a partner even when she is young, and there are powerful non-economic forces at work, such as a man’s assessment of whether she would make a good mother or is a good housekeeper, whether they share the same tastes or, for her, whether he makes her laugh. (Family formation is different; both the likelihood and number of children decline for women with professional careers.)
And when it comes to remarrying or repartnering in our later years, the importance of economic independence is much greater than it is in the twenty-somethings’ market place. Passions are cooler and the desire to reproduce almost zero. There are usually assets brought in and the children’s inheritance is a serious consideration.
The risk of divorce or break-up figures highly for second-timers. The Family Law Act allows for claims against assets, even if not jointly owned and the partners haven’t cohabitated, even in partnerships of less than five years.
So there is much to think about before accepting that second invitation to a romantic dinner. Do not think this does not also occur to well-heeled women professionals. They, too, know the risks.
Longevity is another reason for women to double down on their economic independence. Life expectancy for anyone who lives to the retirement age of 65 is now well into the 80s and, even for couples, maintaining living standards during this extended final stage requires serious investment.
Women currently retire with about half the superannuation assets of men. No second guesses as to how this will affect their quality of life in old age, or, ahem, their chances in the second-partner market. Trophy women excepted.
The rising tide of homelessness in older women reflects the terrible consequences of the traditional marriage equation. Divorce in middle age with the kids grown up results at best in half a house each. Her capacity to then buy one in her own name plus put away for retirement is significantly compromised by years of part-time or peripatetic employment, pitiful superannuation and poor earnings prospects.
My conclusion? The men and women who do best in the second marriage market have good superannuation, assets of their own and solid current earnings. For women, this is yet another reason to take education and career seriously. (A big sigh.) Yes, I know. What an unromantic way to look at life. Love conquers everything and all that.
But in Australia, permanent relationship breakdown is now as likely as unlikely, and life after divorce in middle age has become a long-term prospect that needs contingency planning.
A man is not a plan, as the old adage goes. Women need to replace the Prince Charming strategy with self-determination. I hate to quote Mike Tyson but really, there’s no better call to arms: “Everybody has a plan until they get hit in the face.”
Pru Goward is professor of social interventions and policy at Western Sydney University. She is a former sex discrimination commissioner and served as a Liberal minister in the NSW government for eight years.
Pru Goward is a former Liberal NSW government minister and former sex discrimination commissioner.