Why a Silver Divorce Is an Increasingly Risky Option for Women

18/03/2013 16:06 GMT | Updated 17/05/2013 10:12 BST

Longer and healthier lives mean more married couples in their 60s are spying the possibility of second chances. Recent Office for National Statistics figures suggest the trend for 'silver separators' is still building - with divorces among the over 60s up a startling 58% in 2012 compared with 2011. This is no blip. Older people will increasingly have new opportunities, and more of a role in society, rather than be assumed to be 'retiring' from life in general when they reach a certain age. Longevity and the possibility of new possibilities and adventures is something to be celebrated, but it's not the whole story. For women, divorce late in life could be a risky strategy - and there is a real danger that, without changes in employment and pensions, older women will become the fastest growing disadvantaged group in society.

The formula is clear enough. Women live longer (among people aged 65 or older, 46% of women and 26% of men now live alone); pensioners in general are also more likely to be affected by poverty; therefore single older women are at greatest risk of poverty and isolation. The basic solution is for women to be more engaged in work throughout their lives, building up both the value as employees and cash into savings and pensions that will provide longer-term security. At the moment, women and individuals from low socio-economic backgrounds are over-represented in the category of 'older inactive persons'. A key target in the EU's Lisbon Strategy was to increase labour market participation of workers aged 55-64 to 50% by 2010, but figures in 2011 showed this target has only been partially met - with 41% of men and 59% of women in this age group inactive.

The growing number of older people in general is a real opportunity for employers. But in some cases, especially in the more developed economies of the EU, outdated attitudes and practices around work and retirement have tended to marginalise older people and turn them, often prematurely, from being contributors to being recipients. Employers need to be more ready to adapt offices and workplaces and their working practices in order to suit the needs of more older workers. This means more workplaces with an age-friendly culture, that offer more flexible working hours and work breaks (for caring duties for example).

Workplaces must reflect a change in attitudes that increasingly recognises older employees as an asset - rather than people who are 'winding down' and of diminishing value. Two areas in particular will be important in shaping the future behaviour of all older workers: the changes in statutory retirement age and pension provision. But changing policies in these areas might only serve to further polarise the experience of already advantaged and disadvantaged groups. The situation with pensions is already well-known (8% of the poorest have financial protection via pensions; compared with 70% coverage among top earners). Those people with better jobs will retrain (perhaps going back to university, as suggested recently by government), have flexible working arrangements, good private pensions and spending power. Those that don't will follow a very different trajectory.

Any attempt to keep more older women in the workforce is going to be complicated, because women are reported to experience ageism at a younger age than men. Traditional ideas of the roles of men and women are engrained in our societies, but will need to change if any kind of reasonable balance of equality is going to be found. The World Health Organisation advocate that where years have been added to life, we must now add life to years. It's going to be a highly pertinent issue for women, outliving their male counterparts, and perhaps finding more time and opportunities for second and third chances, but the threat of poverty remains real for many.