Why Retirement Is Not for Me—or for Many Women

I have been irritated for quite some time by constant questions from friends and colleagues about when I am going to retire. Some of them even imply that I am wrong not to be retired already. I love my work and get energy, joy, and satisfaction from it. Why would I want to stop doing what is so life-giving for me? I am now in my late sixties, and a few years ago I asked my mentor, Edith Whitfield Seashore, for advice about how to deal with these annoying questions. At the time she was still working and in her mid-eighties, and she replied: “When people ask me when I am going to retire, I ask, ‘Isn’t retirement doing what you love?’ When they say yes, I reply, ‘Then I guess I’m retired.’” I loved her response then, but I still get irritated by the same constant questions. I was very interested to read a recent article by Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times citing research that shows I am not alone. Women are working longer, many by choice because they are “having way too much fun.” Some, of course, work out of necessity. Miller cites research from two new studies that draw their data from the Health and Retirement Study at the University of Michigan as well as the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey and Survey of Income and Program Participation. The new studies show:

  • Women are more likely than in previous generations to work at almost every point in their lives
  • Women are significantly more likely to work into their sixties and seventies—often full time—because they enjoy it
  • The above is also true in most developed countries, not just in the United States
  • Nearly 30 percent of women sixty-five to sixty-nine in the United States are working, up from 15 percent in the late 1980s
  • Eighteen percent of women seventy to seventy-four work, up from 8 percent
  • Men’s employment after sixty is up, too, but not as steeply
  • Women who are college graduates are more likely to be employed in the older age groups, but the age of employment for women with no degree is increasing at roughly the same pace
Sometimes women work longer because they enjoy it, and they want to stay active and engaged in the world of work. Sometimes, of course, women work longer because of financial necessity, and they have no choice. For those who choose to keep working, some are like me and have gone back to school or trained for a new career later in life. They had the energy and desire to stay engaged or start something new. I started a PhD program at the age of fifty-five and graduated at the age of sixty-one because I felt ready for a new challenge and wanted the stimulation. I also knew I wanted to keep working, so it seemed reasonable to me to invest in an advanced degree later in life. Many women go back to school or study for new certifications or licenses in their fifties, sixties and seventies because they find it energizing to master something new and discover new ways to contribute. Other women start new businesses or services that they find fulfilling. While the women described above are choosing to work, many women have no choice. Sometimes late-life divorce, inadequate or nonexistent pensions, or financial losses such as those incurred during the great recession—when many people lost their retirement savings and homes—create the need to keep working. Sometimes people have to keep working due to high accumulated debt, even if they would prefer not to. Health problems can also force us to step out of the workforce, and life can be quite difficult for those with no savings who must rely on Social Security. Many friends and colleagues of mine who choose to keep working have, however, been forced out of their organizations and told they are “too old” to continue. Ashton Applewhite of the New York Times writes about the mix of attitudes and institutional practices that create ageism and force out people with wisdom, experience, and energy before they are ready. Those forced out often struggle to recreate themselves when they know they want to keep working, but they can if they persist. I am grateful to have my health and satisfying work as I head into my seventies. I truly feel that we have no limits if we follow our energy and our dreams. What have you discovered about how to create the next chapter of your life? Let us hear from you.   Photo courtesy of Business Forward. CC by sa-2.0  ]]>

How Sexism and Racism Can Be Harmful to Your Health

Sexism and racism are two forms of systemic injustice where people are treated unfairly by a network of social institutions because they belong to a certain social-identity group. For example, much has been written about the gender-pay gap and obstacles to promotion for women in many fields. In addition, the Black Lives Matter movement has raised our awareness of the higher rates of incarceration and killing of African Americans by police and the judicial system than is true for Whites. Gender and race are not the only social-identity categories where discrimination occurs, of course. Let’s take a look at some recent studies on how sexism and racism can be harmful to our health. (Be aware that these findings probably apply to other marginalized groups, such as the LGBTQIA community, as well.) One example of sexism is the barrier for women in certain fields, such as engineering and construction, that reduce the number of women in these professions. Jenny Kutner reports that a new study by researchers at Indiana University found that token women—defined as having 15 percent or fewer female colleagues in male-dominated industries—experienced “abnormally high stress levels.” Specifically, the researchers found that being exposed to stressors such as lower pay, isolation and invisibility, obstacles to promotion, and sexual harassment causes “irregular patterns of cortisol, the hormone that regulates stress.” Token women, the researchers explain, “exhibit more unhealthy cortisol fluctuations throughout the day than do their male counterparts or women who worked in offices with a more balanced gender ration.” Kutner notes that the fluctuating cortisol levels of the token women in the study are the same sort of hormone irregularity associated with post-traumatic stress disorder and can have lasting repercussions on health and well-being. Another example of sexism is the objectification of women and girls that can begin in adolescence or earlier and continue through adulthood. Objectification includes (but is not limited to) the following:

  • Leering by men who may be colleagues, acquaintances, or strangers
  • Catcalls of a sexual nature on the street from strangers
  • Groping and flashing by men that can start when girls are quite young
  • Online sexual harassment
Jessica Valenti of the New York Times reports on research showing that these examples of “the ways women and girls are looked at and dehumanized” affect their mental health, sense of self, and sense of safety. Acts of objectification are microaggressions—small moments of being diminished or demeaned—that add up. These are not to be confused with macroaggressions like rape and other forms of sexual violence, but nonetheless they are harmful in the long run for girls and women. The psychological toll of racism and the resulting daily cost of micro- and macroaggression is an old story for black people in our country. Jenna Wortham writes that the killings of black women and men by police officers recorded on cameras and made public—including the recent killings of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Sandra Bland, and Korryn Gaines—have produced “rage and mourning and angst that . . . eats you alive with its relentlessness . . . and leaves you feeling helpless.” She explains that the resulting traumatic stress response for many African Americans makes them physically sick with rashes, depression, insomnia, and emotional exhaustion. As a white person, I’ve been upset by these killings and incarceration rates, but I realize that I do not feel the same fear and trauma as my African American friends and colleagues—I do not think the police are going to arrest me or shoot me because of the color of my skin, which is a reality for them. What can we do? One thing that matters a lot is to listen to each other to understand the impact of racism and sexism—men can listen to women, whites can listen to people of color—and take whatever action we can together to change the systems that damage our health and our lives. It will take all of us to change these deeply rooted systems. Do you have stories of people from different social backgrounds coming together to address systemic injustice? If so, please let me know in the comments.   The image in this post is courtesy of businessforward (CC BY-SA 2.0).    ]]>