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Put Yourself in her Shoes

March 5, 2021 
By Joseph Coughlin, Ph.D., Director of the MIT AgeLab

Why many women nearing retirement are facing unprecedented uncertainty

Financial Professionals: This article is based off of our popular 8,000 Days module. Click here to access additional content to share.

Joseph F. Coughlin, Ph.D.
Dr. Coughlin is the Director of the MIT AgeLab. His research examines how the disruptive demographics of an aging society, social trends, and technology will shape future innovations in business and government.

Standing behind the register Jenny looks on with an amused expression as I fumble with a large box. Inside the box is my newfound treasure—a new coffeemaker marked down a full 50%! Trying to relieve me of my embarrassment from my clear lack of dexterity, Jenny engages me with a little small talk, “It was easier years ago when the price was on the box rather than on a little striped sticker.” Finally finding the barcode, I angle the box so that Jenny can scan the price as she rings me up.

Recalling a news story that the retail department store chain was planning to close dozens of stores, I ask, “Everything is half-off – is this one of the stores that is closing?”

Jenny looks down and responds, “No, this store is not closing.”

I reply, “That’s good, so many folks are already out of work.”

 

Jenny Looks Up; Her Gaze Seems To Look Past Me

I guess that Jenny is in her early 60s. She laments, “Today is my last day. You know, I have worked here for years.”

Before I can express my sympathy, she volunteers “I don’t know what I am going to do, my husband can’t work, and I am not sure who is going to hire me now. People think that people like me should just retire...but I am not sure I can afford that. My daughter says I can’t just sit at home. I will go nuts just looking after my husband.”

 

Sadly, Jenny Is Not Alone

She's part of a larger, seemingly invisible, cohort of women. Women caught in between. That is, women nearing retirement that are uniquely caught by time, life stage, conflicting family roles, and socioeconomic conditions —all contributing to unprecedented uncertainty about their futures.

Jenny and other women near her age do not fit neatly into popularized generational buckets and life stages. They don’t fit marketing images of Gen X moms managing young teens at home, instead, they are likely to be the oldest Gen X women, now empty nesters, and see their late 50s and future retirement in sight. And, they include the youngest Baby Boomer women already in their late 50s and early 60s. Unlike ubiquitous stereotypical images found on retirement brochures of older Baby Boomers strolling beaches and rolling down bike paths, these women are part of an aptly named, seemingly anonymous, Generation Jones that is still very much working and wanting to work.

These women do not fit neatly into one generation or another but they are caught in between the demands of younger and older generations. They are likely to be the primary caregiver to a partner or spouse—and almost always—the person relied upon by elderly parents and in-laws. Younger Millennial and Generation Z adult children call these women mother, grandmother, and rely on their advice, care, and often their financial support.

After Years of Raising Children, Many of These Women Reentered the Job Market

Before the pandemic, the share of women over 55 years old in the workforce outpaced all other age groups. Going back to work is more than a strategy to make up for lost earnings while raising children or to shore up retirement savings, it is about something more. As Jenny recounts her daughter’s remarks, “[you] can’t just sit home.” While all women face challenges in the job market, women Jenny’s age are caught in between the double-whammy of ageism and sexism. Research suggests that women in their later 50s and early 60s are not only victims of sexism and ageism, they are also less likely than men to benefit from laws designed to protect against ageism.

If getting back to work was not difficult enough, women are disproportionately employed in industry sectors under assault by the pandemic and ongoing structural change—hospitality and leisure, food services, administrative support, and retail. Major retailers, for example, were downsizing, or closing, long before COVID-19. The decline of the mall and the rise of online shopping are just two factors contributing to the retail industry’s ongoing restructuring and Jenny’s job loss. As retail finds a new equilibrium between big box, little box, bricks, and clicks, the loss of jobs in traditional retail has hit women (nearly 60% of the retail workforce) like her the hardest.

Women caught in between find themselves navigating an uncertain future—a future that is likely to be living for another 25-30+ years. They are more than pre-retirees, they are fulcrums of multiple generations. They are spouses and partners. They are mentors and sources of support to adult children and grandchildren. They are caregivers to elderly loved ones. They are vital sources of household income. They are drivers of economic productivity. They are key influencers and consumers. Yet, they are seemingly invisible, even forgotten by some. The needs of women caught in between deserve attention and positive action from industry, government, and families today. Recognizing their contributions, and supporting them, supports us all.

 

Next Step

Chances are you have women clients who could be affected by this employment trend. So be prepared to respond. First, listen and empathize with their situation. If she still wants to work, encourage her to explore employment opportunities. If early retirement is imminent, begin planning for that transition.



The MIT AgeLab is not an affiliate or subsidiary of Hartford Funds.

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