Women over 65 constitute the fastest-growing segment of the population. They are also the single poorest group in America, with an average retirement income just half that of men.
"Retirement has always been a man's problem," says Tish Sommers, president of the Older Women's League in Oakland, Calif. "Now it's woman's issue too."
For most men, retirement is a singular noun, a one-time event. For many women the word is best rendered in the plural. Multiple roles -- as wife, mother, employee -- create a series of retirements -- unofficial and unheralded, but no less significant in the choices and adjustments they require.
In 19th-century America a woman might have been nearly 60 before her last child was grown. Today she may be only 45 when her youngest goes off to college. Twenty years stretch ahead until her official retirement age.
"My 'retirement' was between the last child leaving home and my husband's retirement," says Janet Bricks of Morristown, Tenn.
For growing numbers of women, this "maternal" retirement leaves little blank canvas, few yawning gaps in their lives. The number of married women working has increased dramatically in recent decades, and more women are now workers than homemakers. Women who might once have attended retirement parties as the guest of honor's wife now may be the guest of honor themselves.
As a result, traditional retirement patterns and policies no longer quite work -- if they ever really did. Everything from the social-security system to early retirement comes up short in this new social order.
Even men's and women's retirement clocks are out of synch, some observers claim. While women in the 45-60 group are entering the work force in record numbers -- and staying, men of the same age are leaving.
"Women may be working uphill on careers as men are winding down," says Elaine Brody, director of the Department of Human Services at the Philadelphia Geriatric Center. This later start also means many haven't yet had their fill of working and are reluctant to retire.
But retire they do -- usually early. Despite reduced benefits 70 percent of women retire at 62, creating a last-in-first-out pattern frequently at odds with their own needs.
Some leave because of a husband's retirement. Others claim health problems, either their own or their husband's. Still others may need to help the generation before them, as more families include two generations of retirees.
"It is to daughters rather than sons that older people turn for assistance," Mrs. Brody says. "Daughters and daughters-in-law visit, give personal care, shop, and act as a confidante and source of support."
For some women, the greatest challenge is not leaving a job but finding one -- any job at all. Tish Sommers labels their problem "sex plus" discrimination: "sex-plus-age, when a woman can't even get into traditional women's work." What passes for early retirement sometimes is unemployment in disguise.
Whatever the reason, early retirement makes even less sense for women than for men, given women's longer life span and lower retirement income. Reducing the number of working years short-circuits potential productivity, income, and -- for some -- independence.
"The prospects for retirement are not pleasant," says Maggie Kuhn, founder and leader of the Gray Panthers. "In our present social-security system, benefits are calculated on what you have paid in. If you've never had decent jobs, if your employment record is spotty or interrupted, you're going to get a relatively lower social-security benefit.
"Linked to that is the fact that women are survivors, outliving men anywhere from eight to 13 years. It's desperately needed for women, if they can accept this, that they should continue to be gainfully and usefully employed."
A recent George Washington University study underscores her point. "By every economic measure, women are more deprived in their later years than are men," the study concludes. In 1979 the median social-security benefit for women over 65 was $2,813.For men it was $5,479. In addition, 90 percent of women in private industry retire with no pension. Those with a pension get an average of
Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts, a member of the House Select Committee on Aging, explains part of the problem: "The major error we have to correct in the retirement system is the discrimination against housewives and mothers. We still don't fully recognize that the worst thing we do to the family and to the traditional role of woman is to devalue her when it comes to pensions. We ought to have full recognition that the family is a unit -- a unit which earns and nurtures -- and that people share and share alike in those things. The single greatest priority in the pension system should be to do that. It's the next step, and it's going to cost some more money."
Despite the economic liabilities, many argue that retirement is easier for women than men. A working career might end, but domestic duties do not. Nor do civic, social, and volunteer activities, which give many women's lives a continuity men lack.
Still, challenges exist. Wives who once cheerily sang "It's so nice to have a man around the house" now find it's not always quite so nice on a full-time basis.
"I've become a one-woman entertainment committee," the wife of a recent retiree claims. "The only time I'm alone is when I go to the grocery store and the beauty shop."
"I don't think some women realize that's the way it's going to be," Mrs. Bricks says. "All of a sudden they've got a live-in."
"After spending 70 percent of their time apart during working years, now couples are spending 80 percent of it together," says Gerard Svendsen, vice-president of Del Webb Corporation in Sun City, Ariz. "Couples should enjoy doing things together and separately. They need separate spaces."
In an informal survey of Sun City residents he found "too much time together" ranked as one of four major retirement challenges, along with "absence of work excitement," "being away from friends," and "too much time."
"Marriage vows have to be rethought and recast at retirement," Maggie Kuhn says.
Most couples make the transition, although divorce rates for older couples have risen slightly in recent years.
"We know three couples where the wife just couldn't take retirement," a Florida woman says. "One left, another is thinking about it. The third couple, they just go their separate ways."
It is a problem incomprehensible to countless women in another, larger group: those alone. While three-fourths of all men 65 and over are married, three-fifths of women in this group are not. There are three women for every two men over 65.
Yet in books, real estate ads, travel brochures, and planning courses, retirement still resembles a latter-day Noah's Ark. Every retiree, the assumption goes, is part of a couple.
The distorted image obscures some of the fundamental issues confronting single women. Concerns about income, housing, transportation, and companionship loom large.
Over one-third of all widows live below the official poverty line. Two-thirds of widows live alone. And many older women never learned to drive or no longer own a car, isolating them further.
What can be done to broaden women's opportunities for a satisfying, productive retirement?
"It's not just a question of getting some hobbies," Tish Sommers states flatly. "It's a question of how you're going to manage if you're on your own."
Some women find continuing education programs valuable. Maggie Kuhn sees special advantages for widows:
"When a woman loses her husband and must redirect her goals, part of that redirection can be to go to school. She will immediately have new friends. She will immediately have the basis for a new life. It is yourm life, and the things you did with your husband and family in earlier years can be enhanced by the new knowledge you bring to your experience."
Anne Firor Scott, professor of history at Duke University, stresses the importance of feminism -- "which I think of as women standing on their feet and acting in any sphere of life where there is important work to be done."
Speaking in a "Perspectives on Aging" lecture series, soon to be published as a book, she has said, "When women outnumber men in large numbers, the importance of being an independent woman becomes obvious. If a woman has always been defined as somebody's wife and/or somebody's mother, she is not in very good shape at age 65 to become a person in her own right. Furthermore, if one is likely to live till 80 or 90, it is exceedingly important to have a great deal of unfinished work on hand to make it worth getting up in the morning. While some few of us are designed for the contemplative life, many more are most alive when most involved with real problems beyond their own daily existence."
Noting that women have always been "exceedingly good at forming voluntary associations to meet social needs," she suggests the next step: "for older women themselves to take the lead in organizing to meet some of these well-identified needs."
Considerable leadership is already coming from the Older Women's League. Largely as a result of its efforts, the special problems of older women are among the major concerns of the 1981 White House Conference on Aging.
In addition, the league is planning what Tish Sommers calls "a grass-roots effort" to educate women in their 40s, 50s, and early 60s. The program, "Curriculum for a new age: Midlife planning for women," will be available to O.W.L. chapters nationwide by late 1982.
"In the future, women will plan ahead and be far more willing to take care of themselves," Miss Sommers predicts. "Instead of seeing themselves as passive victims, they will be taking their lives into their own hands."