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'Now retirement is a woman's issue too'

By Marilyn Gardner / September 23, 1981



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.

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"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.