In the US sitcom Superstore (2015-2021), one of the characters, Myrtle, is an elderly store assistant who is often the brunt of jokes due to the slow pace of her work and her overall dottiness. At one point in the show, Myrtle is made redundant and it is discovered that she has a new job collecting cans which requires her to start work at 3am. (It is difficult to be completely sympathetic to Myrtle though as she does also make racist statements).
In complete contrast to the character of Myrtle, are the ageing academics portrayed in the Netflix comedy/drama The Chair (2021). Their jobs are under threat due to dwindling enrolments in their classes which is indirectly blamed on their age (and being out of touch with young students). While both Myrtle and the professors experience age discrimination, the contrast between the reasons for them wanting to work could not be starker. Myrtle has to work – she needs to support herself due to no apparent savings or adequate retirement income. The professors want to work – their work forms an important part of their identity and is tied to feelings of self-worth. They all appear to be financially secure after many years as tenured academics and could afford to retire.
But despite the obvious over-the-top elements of the comedy and scenarios in Superstore, and the occasional slapstick in The Chair, there are elements of truth in the characters’ situations, with a marked increase in people working beyond official retirement ages in countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). This is due to a variety of reasons such as ageing populations created by falls in birth-rates but also people living longer. As people live longer, the years they are able to work can increase.
For people in professional roles, working beyond retirement age is more likely to be a choice, for the same reasons as those aforementioned ageing professors. Maintaining a work life can be beneficial in terms of feeling valued and keeping the mind sharp. Older people have a lot to contribute to the workforce, and there are organisations that recognise the value of experience brought by older staff members and advocate for their hire.
But for working-class people who need to work past 65 due to insufficient funds for retirement, these extra years of work can be gruelling and exhausting. The nature of working-class work means that is it often more punishing on the body, and alongside this, working-class people are more likely to be employed on temporary contracts, resulting in the need to take on more than one job. For women, this is often accompanied by extra caring responsibilities such as looking after grandchildren for adult working children due to the high cost of childcare.
Poverty in old-age is devastating. The dream of a peaceful retirement is out of reach for increasing numbers of working-class people. In countries such as the US, UK, and Australia, there has been an increase in homelessness in older people. Some older people find themselves unable to pay rent or mortgages. These numbers appear to be increasing particularly for older women who have earnt less than men over their lifetimes and who are more likely to victims of domestic violence (and therefore been forced to leave their home). Not all older people own their own homes or have family to rely on to support them, and the cost of housing in many cities is becoming increasingly unaffordable for older working-class people.
In many ways, class differences are made more acute in old age. Getting old is expensive. As we age, we might need more medical treatment or accommodations made for age-related disabilities. And working-class people are more likely to experience age-related illnesses earlier than high-income counterparts. Some of us will require round the clock care. Access to these essential goods and services costs a lot of money. People with financial means can pay for mobility aids and necessary medicines. They can be sure that they will be cared for, whether in the home by private carers or in suitable and well-resourced aged care homes.
Many elderly working-class people struggle without their basic needs being met. Some mobility aids might be made available on loan by local government authorities or charities, but this depends on where someone lives. Paying for private carers is often out of reach, so staying at home becomes impossible. Some people have access to meals on wheels (or equivalent service), but this might not be free or even available in all areas. It can take months for a place to be available in a public (state-run) aged care home. And the level of care in a care home can vary dramatically due to under-resourcing of this sector.
In Australia recently, a Royal Commission into Aged Care found that the sector is extremely under-funded, with many residents not adequately cared for due to lack of staff. Some of the findings were shocking, and the stories of neglect of elderly people truly heartbreaking. The Commission report recommended increases in funding and improvements in staff patient ratios and staff training.
When my mother became frail due to age-related illnesses, she would sometimes say to me ‘don’t get old’. We would laugh at the alternative, but in her jest, she was commenting on the specific situation. As a working-class woman, she had experienced financial hardship for most of her life. She considered herself lucky though – she lived in secure public housing and had been able to enjoy some years of retirement, which while still very frugal due to her low income, were still work-free.
We do want to live long lives. But as we age, we want to know that we’ll be looked after if we become too frail to live independently. We don’t want to be getting up at 3am to collect cans like Myrtle, but this is a reality for many working-class seniors. The lives and experiences of older people in our working-class communities should be valued and celebrated. Their knowledge should be shared, and their stories listened to. The value of our lives should not be determined by class. We all deserve dignity and respect in old age.
Sarah Attfield, University of Technology Sydney