Longevity can improve work-life balance for women

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Longevity can improve work-life balance for women

by Brenda D. Frink on Monday, January 3, 2011 - 7:03am

Laura CarstensenIt is well known that women live longer than men. In the United States, boys born between 2005 and 2010 had a median life expectancy of about 76, whereas girls’ life expectancy was about 81. But even one hundred years ago, women did not outlive men, a fact largely attributable to death related to pregnancy and childbirth.

In the United States today, pregnancy and childbirth have become much safer, and women also bear far fewer children than in the past. Maternal death is now rare, just 11 women per 100,000 live births.

The result? Increased longevity for women.

Despite the increasing feminization of the senior population, and despite the fact that elderly women are more likely than men to live in challenging conditions, most people do not perceive old age as a feminist issue. Indeed, says Laura L. Carstensen, Director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, much of the activism around gender issues focuses on workplace conditions and reproductive freedom, topics that are more immediately salient to younger women than to their senior counterparts.

Carstensen spoke about women and aging as part of “Beyond the Stalled Revolution,” a panel event that kicked off a three-year research exploration at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research. As a former Director of the Clayman Institute, Carstensen believes longevity is a major issue for the gender revolution to tackle.

Because married women frequently outlive their husbands, older women are more likely than men to live in retirement homes or to experience isolation from friends and relatives. Because women have smaller Social Security incomes than men, senior women are also more likely than men to live in poverty.

Carstensen explained that the Social Security gap comes largely from the way that society has structured caregiving responsibilities. Women are more likely to work in the home or to take time off from a career for both childrearing and eldercare. These types of labor, traditionally performed by women, do not carry Social Security benefits.

But increased life expectancy, which confronts women with substantial challenges, also offers possible solutions. If we think seriously about longevity, we begin to see the means to improve the lives of everyone, not just older women.

In a career lattice, workers could move in and out of careers. Photo by Izabela Habur/iStockPhoto

In a career lattice, workers could move in and out of careers. Photo by Izabela Habur/iStockPhoto

With added years at the end of a life, people could move in and out of careers, taking sabbaticals as needed for childrearing, elder care, or personal development. Carstensen used the metaphor of “career lattices,” rather than ladders, to describe what a typical career path might look like in the future.

Rather than packing so many life events into the years between 30 and 65, both women and men could integrate work, family, and leisure over many years. The result would be a healthier society for everyone, male and female, young and old.

Carstensen reflected that the current “stall” in the gender revolution is partly a result of the enormous progress women have already made. Young women have been raised with the expectation of gender equality and do not perceive a need for social activism. Educated women may feel a certain amount of complacency—after all, they are doing relatively well compared to many groups around the world.

Nonetheless, said Carstensen, many issues that are crucial to women remain to be tackled, let alone solved. Longevity is one such issue. By thinking about the needs of senior women in addition to younger women, feminists could effect crucial social change while also expanding the constituency of their political movement.

This article is the second in a five-part series on the “Beyond the Stalled Revolution” panel. Upcoming issues of Gender News will feature additional scholars who spoke at the event.