Work Sucks for Women Too. Regardless of Our Age.
Years ago I worked with a woman who won nine million dollars in the California state lottery. The lottery folks suggested she take a monthly payout but she said no thanks, she wanted it all. After taxes she got just over three million dollars.
This woman – let’s call her Claire – was the administrative assistant in the Marketing department. I didn’t know her, but my friends would point her out at company picnics. “That’s Claire,” they would say. “She’s the one who got three million dollars and did not quit her job.”
Back before she won the lottery, Claire used to drive an old Honda that was stolen one night. She reported the theft to the police but in her view, they did not do enough to track down her car. So, Claire drove her rental around town until she spotted her stolen car, then called the police and told them to come get it. Which they did.
After Claire became a multimillionaire, she still drove that beat up recovered Honda to work.
When people used to tell me these stories, I imagined what I would do if somebody handed me three million dollars. None of my fantasies involved staying at my job, although my job was, to me, more interesting than being the admin for the Marketing department.
In more recent years I’ve thought that perhaps Claire, like many women of my generation, was so busy proving that women could succeed in the workplace that we did not have the bandwidth to consider work more critically. Sure, there are all kinds of books and articles about how tough it is for women to balance motherhood and career (Motherhood. Right. As if every child born was a reenactment of the Virgin Birth with no male participation.). But spilling the beans on the dirty little secret that work itself sucks, aside from the parenting angle, seems largely to be the province of men who don’t need to prove they belong on the job.
And I have to say that some of these guys are great at trashing the hyper-work ethic. Jackson Browne in “The Pretender,” singing about being a happy idiot in the struggle for the legal tender, is an all-time favorite. And then there is Luo Huazhong who responded to the insanely long work hours in China by founding the “lie flat” movement. He only rises on occasion to play a few video games for a little cash. And Tim Kreider, whose New York Times article “It’s Time to Stop Living the American Scam” proclaims, “To young people, America seems less like a country than an inescapable web of scams, and “hard work” less like a virtue than a propaganda slogan, inane as “Just say no.”” Fantastic.
But I am very glad to see women beginning to join the work-bashing chorus. A former NPR reporter, Cassady Rosenblum, wrote a New York Times article proclaiming “Work is a False Idol.” Another young woman’s tweet that she didn’t want a career, she wanted to sit on the porch, has been retweeted 84 million times.
So now the United States has a worker shortage along with, apparently, a baby shortage. My response to the caterwauling about both issues is: you get what you incentivize. If workers are expected to put in long hours for lower real wages than their forebears; if the social supports that exist for parents in other first world countries do not exist here, well, what do you expect?
Predictably, the worker shortage has spawned a rash of articles about workplace opportunities for retirees. Because older people suffer from ageism in hiring, some of us have the same urge to compensate and prove ourselves worthy that women had back in the day. But before we jump back in, let’s stop to remember why we retired in the first place. Just what is life like for workers in the United States?
In 2021 Goldman Sachs produced a report on its worker satisfaction. Now, granted, not every work environment is as high-pressure (or as highly paid) as Goldman. But just consider: On average, first year analysts were working 105 hours a week and sleeping five hours a night. One person commented they had a total of four hours a day to cook, eat, do laundry, shower, interact with friends and family, and use the bathroom. Most respondents reported they were unlikely to still be working at Goldman Sachs in three months. But that begs the question: just where were they planning to go?
Women who did not win three million in the California lottery face multiple financial challenges in retirement. We spent our careers earning lower wages than men for the same jobs, leading to lower retirement savings and smaller social security payments. We are more likely to have taken time away from the workforce for childrearing and other caretaking, affecting our ability to save and when we return to work typically take a 20% hit in earnings. Then we must make those lower savings last over a lifespan that averages five years longer. One panelist in a presentation at the Milken Institute called it the “march toward poverty.” As she put it, “the math does not work.” With those numbers in mind, a return to work may seem like a great idea, or the only idea.
But before we celebrate the new gray workforce, before we put on our rose-colored glasses and fold recall the bosses we could not stand at the time, let’s consider our options.
Sell your big expensive house on the coast and buy a small, cheap house in a swing state. Or set up a Golden Girls house to cut expenses. Sell your creativity: Make art, or write for payment. If all else fails, work part time. Once you have your freedom, never give it back – unless you must.
Gloria Steinem famously said, “One day an army of gray-haired women may quietly take over the Earth.” Perhaps we will take over the planet by sitting quietly on the front porch, only rising on occasion to get paid to play a few video games. Let us cherish our hard-won freedom and reimagine how to keep it.