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tubs of butter on a blue supermarket shelf, behind a clear plastic curtain.

‘Dry Store’. Image: Lianne Broadbent

In early July 2020, as Melbourne entered its second lockdown for the year and an 8pm curfew was enforced, I found myself walking through empty streets after finishing work for the night. On the last empty bus home, I experienced an almost euphoric sense of calm and security for the first time since childhood. (A lone woman at night knows the sense of wearing good running shoes. ) This feeling persisted well into the night—but gradually, as I tried to sleep, it was replaced by a growing sense of dread, until the stroke of 6am when I began to hear faint sounds of moving traffic and the call of the magpie. This insomnia was not caused so much by fear of the plague, although that was very present—it had more to do with worrying about what was to become of me if I became sick or infirm, and could no longer work as a cook. That feeling was certainly not something new.

Statistically, I’m a time bomb waiting to go off. Google women over 50—that is, after ploughing through the first few hits that are, unsurprisingly: hairstyles, fashion, and weight loss—and you might see that according to Debbie Faulkner and Laurence Lester in The Conversation:

Older women have been recognised as the fastest-growing group of homeless people in Australia in recent years. Yet until now we have not known exactly how many older women are at risk of homelessness. Our research, released today, finds about 240,000 women aged 55 or older and another 165,000 women aged 45-54 are at risk of homelessness.

So what are the major factors for homelessness for older women? Hardly surprising, it’s precarious work, poverty, and lack of affordable housing. The risks increase if you are further marginalised in this society; if you’re an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander woman, if you’re an immigrant from a non-English speaking country. The risk of homelessness also increases if you are single, and most damningly, a single parent. This stinging conclusion is reiterated by Emma Dawson, Tanja Kovac and Abigail Lewis in their 2020 report ‘Measure for Measure: Gender Equality in Australia’. They write, ‘[it] is undeniable that of the most significant life transitions for any woman, in which the experience of gender inequality becomes acute, is becoming a parent’. Compound that with multiple risk factors and you have something quite scary indeed—and it’s only going to get much, much worse as Australia’s population ages. (And while I have avoided one risk of homelessness by remaining childless, this also means I’ll never be a grandmother or breed the next generation of white-collar workers.) With this in mind, I wonder why no one seems to give a rats—could it be that as a woman who is over 50, I have out-lived my usefulness? Or is it that for a lot of people in their twenties and thirties—certainly it was the case for me—middle age is a faraway country?


The rumours are true—hospitality in the 80s and 90s was lines of coke on the stainless steel benches, beer o’clock that started at 10am, lashings of cash and well-cooked books. I have worked in various positions in the hospitality industry for over 30 years so I am well used to precarious employment—back in the day we called it ‘freedom’, but complicity in what is essentially wage theft is not something I am proud of. Lost superannuation? Yes, I lost most of my super due to ‘lack of funds’ and now my estimated annual income when I retire (assuming I am still working) is a mighty $4,470. That little message on my last super statement that read, ‘Where you are today can give you a picture of where you’ll be tomorrow’ is a damning prediction indeed.

Could it be that as a woman who is over 50, I have out-lived my usefulness? Or is it that for a lot of people, middle age is a faraway country?

I have a pretty impressive education section on my CV—two undergraduate degrees, two post-graduate degrees and a PhD. I have worked as a sessional teacher and lecturer at university level; however, due to the deeply casual nature of that work, and the more recent slashing of writing courses across higher education (yes, my degrees are in creative writing and education) I found myself, at the age of 49, back where I started in 1987—working as a casual/part-time ‘all-rounder’ (code for a cook who is often given the kitchen hand shift when there is nobody else) in a large commercial kitchen in a gaming venue franchise. My official title is ‘kitchen attendant’ as I don’t have a qualification, so I don’t even get paid as a cook (although some of the younger staff members say ‘yes chef!’ when I give them directions, which makes me laugh). Since the beginning of the pandemic I have been washing a hell of a lot of dishes.

In the staff room, which is really a glorified storeroom with some clothes hooks, there are decidedly un-pithy aphorisms stuck to the walls. In my cynical and writerly thinking they are clear metaphors for how management view their staff members:

Hospitality is fun.

Nothing you are doing is more important than the customer.

In truth, we are watched and monitored by a camera around every corner. ‘You can’t read the paper at work.’ Really? How do they know I read the paper? (Rookie mistake.) This surveillance eats at your self-respect as you try to find respite from exhausting split shifts and the tedium of unrelenting repetitive labour—work much more suited to younger bodies. As Chloe Ann-King wrote recently in Overland, ‘working hospitality can be one hell of a lesson in humiliation and monotony’. I would love to believe Ann-King’s hopeful assertion, when discussing her union work, that the times, they are a-changin’—I’m just not that optimistic.

In this large commercial kitchen, managers literally walk away from words such as union, neoliberalism and recycling, and are known to send vaguely threatening emails about being grateful for being employed at all during these unprecedented times. Entitlements? Gone. In the interests of the company, without whom we would be getting JobSeeker and not JobKeeper, you can’t have that day off, and we will soon be getting back to rostering you on a fortnightly basis and not expect you to drop everything at short notice. As a casual worker, losing my entitlements isn’t really a threat—but at my unfortunate age, my sense of doom in the wee hours comes down to what I lack in spades: agency, choice, options—and most significantly, certainty.

My sense of doom in the wee hours comes down to what I lack in spades: agency, choice, options—and most significantly, certainty.

Things can change quickly in a life, 2020 was exemplary for highlighting that. However, things can also slowly trickle down into a wearing out of options, particularly for women, not really something you are told when you are starting out and making those life-changing decisions. It’s hardly news that, according to the Measure by Measure report, gender inequality compounds life transitions to create ‘significant social and economic inequality for women’. Yet, it should be surprising that we are ‘one of few developed nations that does not actively set targets for gender equality and measure progress towards nationally agreed goals.’ Once again, it seems no one gives a rats. I have a close circle of female friends in their fifties, and while none of us are destitute, each one of us is wearing the economic and psychological impact of spending years attempting to leave abusive relationships. As Helen Garner wrote in her 2015 essay ‘The Insults of Age’, ‘Really, it’s astonishing how much shit a woman will cop in the interests of civic and domestic order’. Sadly, during this pandemic, states and territories across Australia have reported increases in the cases and numbers of domestic violence, which indicates an escalation in underlying tensions—one in which the already marginalised are at greatest risk. While I worry about women of my generation, I fearful of what will happen to younger and more at-risk women in the years to come.

Since the end of lockdown in Melbourne the dynamic seems to have changed in the kitchen, and there’s secret talk in the cool-room. If you have ever worked in a commercial kitchen you will recognise the comfort of large walk-in enclosed spaces: the dry-store, the cool-room and freezer (as places to literally and figuratively cool-off); but these days we talk in the cool-room as a way to avoid the ever-present gaze of CCTV.

While I worry about women of my generation, I fearful of what will happen to younger and more at-risk women in the years to come.

We talk of Plan Bs, or even Plan Cs. However, I find myself saying resignedly that unfortunately hospitality is my Plan B; Plan Cs are for the young, or even the young at heart (up-skilling, re-education—I’m tired, tired, tired, some may even say jaded). Once again I would love to say that there is change afoot—that as an aging woman working as a casual, with shrinking options, I will not face a future of working until I drop dead. The organisations who are working towards ending discrimination and promoting inclusiveness and equity in the workplace and beyond appear to be hitting brick walls right now; JobKeeper is ending, JobSeeker remains below the poverty line; JobMaker only puts older workers at even more risk.

Despite this, though, I am not without hope—and while I’m not sleeping any better, and I really miss the empty streets at night, I still have enough of my health and I’m not infirm, yet. Usually, after a restless night, the thought of death of the patriarchy gets me out of bed in the morning. (Tell her she’s dreaming.)