Women, Age, and Money

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Stella Fosse

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Women, Age, and Money

My grandmother was a young woman during the Great Depression. From that era forward, regardless of her circumstances, she counted every penny. At the grocery store, she inspected each green bean to make sure it was worthy before adding it to her cart.

When my grandmother was in her nineties and needed to move to a care home, she had to spend down the last of her money to qualify. She bought a gold watch—one was allowed to keep a watch—and wore it every day until she passed on her 95th birthday. How ironic to have such a horror of spending money, yet be required to buy a luxury in order to be supplied with the necessities. I often reflect on my grandmother’s life and wonder what she would have thought of the times in which we find ourselves.

Here in the United States, neither gender is in a good financial position in later life. The disappearance of defined benefit plans, the imposition under Reagan of an income tax on Social Security benefits, and the prevalence of ageism in the workplace, have all led to a lower standard of living for olders in the United States. The US pension system ranked eighteenth compared other industrialized nations, and the US has the distinction of the worst ranking healthcare for seniors of all first world nations.

While those factors affect everyone, women who are currently over sixty are comparatively worse off. There are several reasons.

  • Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, girls were less likely than boys to be encouraged to develop financial literacy. The social convention was that the men in our lives would do the financial planning. As a result, we may have been less prepared to map a course to retirement.
  • During our childrearing years, many of us took time away from careers to raise our children and care for elderly relatives. Because that labor was not compensated, we did not contribute to Social Security during those years, lowering our eventual benefits.
  • Women who are now over sixty were subject to discrimination in wages and in promotion opportunities throughout our careers. This limited our ability to save and lowered our Social Security benefits.
  • Ageism in the workplace affects women sooner than men. Women’s appearance (including grey hair) is more likely to be judged as part of our fitness for work.
  • A woman’s retirement funds are more likely to be considered available for family members in need than are men’s retirement funds.
  • And, finally, women on average outlive men and thus need to stretch those smaller retirement dollars farther.

Some of these issues are less prevalent for women currently in their earning years, but all these challenges were pervasive for those of us over sixty. One female researcher who pondered these factors called women’s retirement the “march toward poverty.”

These economic issues are further compounded for women who are members of other marginalized groups.

  • While single women and lesbians over sixty were subject to the discrimination cited above, they lack the mitigating factor of access to a male partner’s (often higher) Social Security.
  • Spouses married under ten years do not have access to a former spouse’s Social Security, even if they took time off to raise a family with their former spouse.
  • Women of color, women with disabilities, women in lower paid jobs, women who lost work early due to gendered ageism, are all likely to end their working years with lower Social Security and savings.
  • The legacy of redlining means that older women of color are less likely to have home equity to draw upon in later years.
  • Women with lower earnings are less likely to have the financial bandwidth to jumpstart a new career after 65.

Given these issues, it is not surprising that homelessness is growing among older adults especially below the age of 65 (when certain social safety net programs begin). Mortality rates are four times higher for homeless olders than for olders who are housed. And many unhoused olders are women.

Each of us can take steps to address these issues in our own lives.

  • If we qualify for benefits, take them. For example, the National Council on Aging has found that most seniors who qualify for SNAP food assistance do not apply.
  • Cultivate ways to spend less and ways to enjoy ourselves for free: visit the public library, write stories and reflections, take walks with friends. Elizabeth White’s book, 55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal, is a great resource for ways to enjoy life for less.
  • Look at housing solutions such as Golden Girls houses, downsizing, and moving to a less expensive part of the country.
  • If we continue to want (or need) income, look at a variety of employment options:
    • Part time work: For many of us, working fewer hours can help to balance structure and freedom.
    • Freelance: Applying the skills of a lifetime to a solo practice is another way to create balance and keep funds coming in.
    • Start a business. Studies are showing that businesses started by older entrepreneurs are more likely to be successful than businesses begun by younger people.
    • Invent a new career: Take your favorite part of your old career and make it into your new career. Or learn something altogether different and pursue a new passion.
  • Develop a realistic assessment of our resources and needs in retirement, given that some of our expenses (clothing and transportation, for example) may be lower when we are not working.
  • Encourage financial literacy for all our children and grandchildren, regardless of gender.
  • Refuse to buy into the idea that we must be earning money to be worthwhile. The worship of work goes hand in hand with ageism.

These strategies can help each of us individually, which is important. And it is equally important to look at the larger picture. Given our culture of rugged individualism, it is tempting to think that each person facing financial struggles in later life should solve their own problems. But poverty in later life is not about a woman’s decision to go out for coffee twenty years ago. Poverty in later life is an aggregate class issue that calls for an organized response. Those of us olders who have the luxury of time, along with our younger allies, should push for public policy solutions that benefit olders of today and the future.

  • Create incentives for job sharing and part time work
  • Institute a floor on Social Security benefits
  • Give businesses incentives to hire older people
  • Increase funding for late life care at home, not just in nursing homes
  • Improve regulation of nursing homes
  • Change the Social Security regulations so that surviving spouses keep their deceased spouses’ benefits if they remarry before age 60. This would ensure that those who earned less due to discrimination are not penalized by remarriage.

The solution to the “march toward poverty” is not to make women and other olders work until extreme old age. The solution is to move away from a culture of rugged individualism, toward a culture that recognizes our interdependence across the lifespan.

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