From Success to Significance: A Woman's Place in a Post-Retirement World

Article excerpt

In her recent book, When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from i960 to the Present (New York: Little Brown and Company, 2010), The New York Times columnist Gail Collins relates an incident involving Lois Rabinowitz, a 28year-old secretary for an oil company executive. Rabinowitz, dressed in a blouse and slacks, went to traffic court to pay her boss's speeding ticket. As she approached the judge, he grew irate over her appearance and sent her home to change her clothes. Rabinowitz got her husband to pay the. fine. And she promised that she would burn all of her slacks.

In the 1960s, many American laws rendered women invisible: a husband controlled his wife's property and earnings, and co-signed her credit cards; a woman had to have her husband's permission to launch a business; and in some states, women could not serve on juries.

The workplace also made women invisible. Typically, women held behind-the-scenes jobs as office workers, receptionists and part-time bookkeepers. They cleaned offices and homes and were cashiers. If they were college graduates, they usually held low-paying jobs as teachers, librarians and nurses.

When it came to work, 1960s women were compliant. In her book Collins writes. "When Nora Ephron graduated from college and applied for a job at Newsweek she was told, '"Women don"t become writers here.'" According to Collins. Ephron recalled that it never would have occurred to her to be outraged or object to such treatment.


Things have changed considerably in the last 50-odd years: today, half of medical and law school students are women. They dominate pharmacy and veterinary medicine. They represent 40% of dental school graduates. And women now outpace their male peers in graduating from college.

From the 1960s and on through the women's movement, work has become an increasingly significant part of women's identity (despite die fact that women in the American workforce still earn less than men - about 80 cents for every dollar earned by men).

So now we face the question: What happens to that identity as mis large generation of women retires from dieir careers and jobs? For many, leaving die workplace for retirement often means leaving behind their identity - an integral component to a sense of purpose. And few, if any, role models exist for these women.

Although feelings of lost or misplaced identity are not shared by all pre-retirement or retired women - many of whom look forward to leisure, rest and time to devote to other important pursuits - there are women who love or had loved their work, and who are uncertain about their postretirement identity. They defy the stereotype that a woman can always return to a traditional domestic role for her life satisfaction. If living life exclusively in this role was insufficient for many women 30 and 40 years ago, it's unlikely that a full-time return to it would be fulfilling.


Today's uncertain economy points toward looming anticipated shortages of retirement income. …