October 24, 2005

 

Flying solo down under: call them funsters, not spinsters

A story published today in the Sydney Morning Herald notes that it was an unusual young woman who stayed single in the aftermath of World War II, when marriage and parenthood were near-universal experiences in Australia.

Cate Turner was one such woman. Now 77, the former teacher and human resources manager says she has never been lonely, or envious of those who took the conventional route.

"When I see what children do to their parents in today's world, I'm glad I didn't have any," she said.

Ms Turner is not alone in her contentment. A project tracking 40,000 women over 20 years reveals that spinsters of her generation are better educated, more financially independent and more closely involved in the community than their married or widowed counterparts.

When she went hang-gliding on her 75th birthday, she was pleased, and not for the first time, not to have a husband who might try to hold her back and tell her she was being silly. "I do like doing something different," she said.

The research shows Ms Turner is fairly typical of women now in their mid to late 70s who never married or had children. Though they made up less than 3 per cent of their age group, they turned out to be a special breed with lessons for a younger generation.

Far from being lonely, poor and overly dependent on public health services in their old age, they are independent and active.

The good news is the latest instalment from the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women's Health, a Federal Government-funded project. Its co-ordinator, Christina Lee, a professor of psychology at the University of Queensland, said there was an assumption unmarried women with no children missed out, and would be a burden on society in their old age because they lacked families to care for them.

The findings showed that these women, aged 73-78, were much better educated and far more likely to have had a career than married or widowed women. They reported fewer financial difficulties and had higher rates of private health insurance. They were more likely to belong to church or other groups, and to be volunteers.

"They didn't suddenly spring into being as single old ladies," Professor Lee said. "They've had entire lifetimes to adapt and to find a connection to society outside the family. And they're coping perfectly well."

Since retiring, Ms Turner has joined the Women's Electoral Lobby, the Older Women's Network and the Lions club. She is a reader on Radio 2RPH and treasurer of the Lane Cove Residents for Reconciliation.

She enjoyed the Harbour Bridge climb on her 72nd birthday, but hang-gliding at Stanwell Park was a particular thrill. "When you

run off the edge of the cliff and feel the wind lifting your wings, you don't feel terror," she said. "It was wonderful."

Professor Lee said a bigger proportion of today's young women would remain single and childless, and could learn from the older generation. "They need to develop the strategies and friendships to get the support they need, and to make their lives as positive as possible."