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Working old ladies, the new hot demographic

August 6, 2017

There’s something haywire about how women are expected to crunch our most celebrated achievements into a timetable that frequently lasts fewer than 20 years. Find a partner. Raise some chicks. Zoom to the top of your field. Check each box by 50.

We may mistake this Acela for our life until it whooshes past, stranding us with other gut-kicked women whose jobs have ended for reasons H.R. never admits are age-related. Going forward, many employers ignore this mature work force, most likely because they don’t want to pay the salaries experience deserves, despite the fact that women earn, on average, 80 percent of men’s wages.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly half — 48.8 percent — of women aged 55 to 64 are among the long-term unemployed.

Hey, I’ve been there. I loved going to an office, where satisfaction was wrapped in camaraderie garnished by a salary, health care, paid vacation and sick days I never used. In my mid-50s I was shown the door. Opportunities came along, far from my home. I held out for a situation that did not involve relocation while I watched my industry — magazine publishing — start to disappear as if it were written in vanishing ink. Remaining jobs went to editors with three years of experience, not 33.

Which is why I joined the gig economy. For the past decade I’ve worked hard, hoping to write books as long as editors and readers will buy them. My second act has gone well, perhaps because I report to a taskmaster: me. I’ve also been lucky, and for that I’m grateful, but self-employment is hardly an option for everyone, nor does it offer any benefits beyond the chance to work in dollar-store leggings while Facebook “likes” replace human contact.

The numbers can be deceiving. The census reports that nearly 18 percent of women ages 70 to 74 continue to work, with even higher stats for the 65-to-69 tier. No manager has pushed them aside for younger models, perhaps because they’re tenured academics, or therapists whose wrinkles equal wisdom, or the other select few with job security. When the Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz studied such women, they discovered that many haven’t retired because they find work fun and, perhaps, because they’re making money. According to a report from the National Institute on Retirement Security, women are 80 percent more likely than men to be impoverished at age 65 and older.

Recently I celebrated my aunt’s 100th birthday. Whoa, is Ruth sharp. Manages her finances. Follows politics. Remembers everything, including that in 1984 I failed to thank her when she cared for my Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother so that her brother — my dad — could visit me. Mea culpa, Aunt Ruth.

Ruth explained how she and her husband grew a tiny North Dakota shop into a mini-Tiffany’s, taking afternoons off for bridge, to which she credits her mental muscle. How the couple got wind of a 55-plus community sprouting in Arizona. How after prairie winters, Sun City was Nirvana.

It’s 45 years since Ruth retired. That’s a heap of bridge. As I toasted her, my mind wandered: If I knew I had 45 lucid years left, what would I do?

I can safely say bridge would not be involved; I’ve been led to believe most games beyond Pictionary pivot on logic and math savvy, neither of which star in my skill set. Ask me to name who wrote “Moo,” and I’ll spit out Jane Smiley, but trafficking in numbers is a nonstarter. When my husband programmed a seemingly random code into our phone to retrieve messages, I snarled, “Why those numbers?” Another woman might have recognized her wedding date.

Nor would social sports make my cut. My eye-hand coordination ends with typing. If forced to live among a tribe of friends, based on their ability to team up to play tennis, I’d organize a book club.

The one-two punch of my agenda: I’ll decide when I “retire,” along with when I become “old.” If I want to rock long hair into my 90s, I will. Likewise for hanging with friends half my age. I’ll study history, take up painting and in the company of my husband — who in my eyes will always be a shaggy sophomore — go dancing and see every art-house film and as many plays as we can afford. (Damn you, Broadway, for tickets that cost what we paid for our first car.) We’ll travel because I don’t want to be the last American to visit Reykjavik. I’ll take my grandchildren to museums, throw parties and get out the vote, lest my life be one big orgy of me time.

But all of this needs to fit around my nonretirement retirement: work. Some sidelined women can afford to be ladies of leisure and happily fulfill conventional expectations, finding joy at gardening clubs and golf courses. The rest of us? Hello, darkness, my old friend. Got Lexapro? The old saw goes that on a deathbed nobody wishes they’d spent more time at the office, but I suspect many women, whose careers stop prematurely, do. Work is where we get our superpowers and not incidentally, our income. How else will we afford a ticket to Iceland?

My aunt’s centenarian club is far from exclusive. About 55,000 Americans are at least 100, and according to census data, they’re almost all female. After jobs end, the fortunate among us may find ourselves with 40 or 50 years looming. In the world I imagine, benefit-free self-employment, endless leisure or poverty won’t be the only options. Inevitable “30 Under 30” lists (“Erin Epstein, 26, has created an app to draft Meryl for president”) will be replaced by reports of “60 After 60,” chockablock with inspiration.

But women can’t just imagine change. They need to speak up about this issue, just as female managers should think about hiring women the age of their mother. Today’s 30- and 40-somethings can’t “lean in” forever. If they don’t address embedded ageism, they’ll blink, pass 50, and possibly see their success evaporate faster than a boss can say, “Sorry, we’re going in another direction.” A younger direction.

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