Two-thirds of women and 40 percent of men work for less than 20 years of their lives, research by the Helen Suzman Foundation (HSF) estimates. The reason many South Africans have such short working lives is not because they start work late or retire early, but because they are unemployed for long periods.

Charles Simkins, the head of research at the HSF, says high levels of unemployment result in high levels of dependency and mean that many working-age adults cannot rely on a social security system to which they must contribute while they are working.

Simkins used data from the 2013 Quarterly Labour Force Survey to simulate working lives and periods of unemployment for a population exposed to the conditions the data had measured. The simulation was adjusted for mortality and life tables using 2015 United Nations World Population Prospects data.

He says men are employed for an average of almost 21 years, while women are employed for just under 16. The average working life is just over 31 years for men and 28 years for women. This means that, on average, men are unemployed for more than a decade, while women spend 12 years without a job.

Simkins says in a research brief that the period for which you are employed affects your contributions to the Unemployment Insurance Fund and your pension.

He says pensions are often based on the number of years you contributed to your retirement fund and your average or final salary or wage.

Assuming you do not withdraw any of your savings while you are working and contributing to a pension scheme, your pension will be about 45percent of your final earnings if you are a man who works for an average of 21 years, and 34 percent if you are a woman who works for an average of just under 16 years.

If you withdraw any of your savings while you are unemployed, the percentage of your final income that you will receive as a pension will be even lower.

Simkins says if medical cover is also provided to those who contribute to an employment-based health scheme, on average, men would be covered for only 52 percent of their lives, and women for only 39 percent of their lives, between the ages of 15 and 64.

The research shows that, on average, only 44 percent of men and 53 percent of women aged 15 reach their 65th birthday - 65 is a common age for retirement in South Africa. This statistic shows why saving for retirement is not a priority for many South Africans: a large proportion of them will not reach retirement age.

The HSF statistics also show that, on average, men retire 2.6 years before they are entitled to the state old-age grant, while women retire almost six years before they qualify for the grant.