I had a long talk on the phone with a friend yesterday. She’s the kind of person I can talk to for well over an hour on the phone, and I’m not much a phone talker generally. Our topics were wide-ranging, but one thing we touched on was how different life can be for women, than it is for men.
Of course, I always knew that life was different for women than it is for men, but as a very young woman I didn’t pay that much attention to it. I grew up in an era and in a place where gender roles were strongly reinforced. It was important to live out your life in the traditional way. Men did man things and women did woman things. Let’s put it this way: I don’t remember any guys in my Home Ec classes. I understand that there may have been a couple, but they weren’t in any of my classes. I took pretty much every Home Ec class offered, from cooking, meal prep, baking, interior design, and all the levels of sewing, from beginning to advanced. I started out making aprons, and I finished making tailored jackets and making my own patterns. I took a Home Ec class every semester during both junior high and high school, and maybe more than one at a time. Guys took shop and woodworking classes. They learned how to fix cars and make basic wooden boxes. I understand a couple of women also took those classes, but since I never did, I don’t know who they were.
Typing was a required course, and everyone had to take at least one typing class to graduate, or maybe it was two. Some of my girlfriends, who were clearly smarter than I was, took a bunch of other business classes, like bookkeeping and business letter writing. I took the required typing classes, but I wasn’t really into it. Why on earth would I ever need to know how to type, anyway? Ahem.
So, when I graduated from high school, I was a proficient seamstress, but other than that, I didn’t know how to do anything that paid money. I guess I’ve always been more interested in the arts than anything else, but it’s not that easy to find a paying job as a modern dancer, or even as a folk singer, which was my passion. There are people who’ve made careers out of modern dance and folk singing, but I came from one of those families where the only thing anyone needed to do upon high school graduation, was to get a job. Period. Get out there and pound the pavement until you find one. It doesn’t matter what it is! You might work at a restaurant, an office, or a factory. It doesn’t matter where or what it was, you just needed to pay your own way in life and figure it out, at least until you got married (if you were a woman.)
My first few years out of high school were particularly um … interesting? I took a job working in a factory in my hometown and did that for a little over two years. We were in the midst of a recession in the mid-seventies, which didn’t help my prospects too much either. After a couple years of working in a hot factory, with a metal roof and a cement floor, I learned one thing: I didn’t want to work in a factory my whole life. The working conditions were abysmal, and the pay was only slightly over minimum wage and I had worked up to that enormous pay of nearly $3 an hour. I signed up for some courses at the local junior college (as it was called then) and finally learned how to type and use a 10-key calculator by touch. I learned how to write a decent business letter, as well as how to fold it to make sure the addressee’s name and address showed through the clear window on the envelope. It was very stressful. I became a floating office worker at the factory, and filled in for secretaries who were on vacation, or out on medical leave for one reason or another. I didn’t get a raise, I just got off the factory floor. When the summer vacation time was over though, back I went. At one point, I decided I’d had enough, and quit that job for good. The trouble was, I didn’t have any experience doing anything else, so finding an office job was still difficult. I got hired several times over the next year; took various jobs, and either quit or got fired within a couple months, or in some cases, a couple weeks. After getting fired for the umpteenth time in a year, I discovered that Denny’s was hiring for a new restaurant they were building in my town. I decided I would by-God get that job! I did. I ended up really liking that job and worked there as a waitress for about 18 months. I was making more money than I ever made working at the factory, or any of the office jobs I had taken. Plus, it was part time and I could switch my hours around in summer so I would never miss a day at the beach. Priorities. That’s what I’m talking about.
I continued taking classes to build my office skills, including all the classes one could take to learn Gregg shorthand. I got proficient in these skills, which were soon to go the way of the dodo bird, but I didn’t know it then. I could do shorthand well, and I could type 85 wpm with very few errors. I could finally use a 10-key by touch, because I had practiced doing it quickly while creating bills for customers I had at Denny’s. Remember: nothing was computerized in those days! That job, while not great, at least helped me to get my mojo working again, and that’s when Allstate Insurance opened their Western Regional Office in my town. I got a job over there, which initially consisted of data entry. At one time, I was the fastest data entry clerk in the entire company. They sent some people out from the home office in Illinois, to sit with me and try to figure out what my secret was, and how I could be so fast and accurate. I don’t know if they learned anything from watching me, the only secret I had was fear about the possibility of getting fired again. I worked there for over five years, and I got a couple of promotions. I became a claims adjuster for personal and group health insurance plans. I took several insurance classes and started working on getting a certification from LOMA (Life Office Management Association.) I didn’t end up finishing that certification because I got married and was pregnant almost immediately thereafter. This changed my life dramatically.
Many other things happened in the years that followed, including divorce, remarriage, and another child. I was in my middle thirties, with two young children, when I really noticed the difference between my life as a woman, and the lives men were living. I was a single mom. I worked a full-time job, with starting pay at $9.14 an hour. I wasn’t getting any child support and I was the sole provider for my family. After working for a year in The Benefits Department of a large company, I got a 3% raise. Now I was really bringing home the bacon! $9.47 an hour. Woohoo! I could quit my part time job waiting tables at a Mexican Restaurant, which I did, post-haste. Now I could be home with my kids in the evenings. Very important!
Weekends were spent at the laundromat. Every Saturday morning, I packed up several bags of clothes, sheets, and towels, and headed over to The Wife Saver. Sometimes my daughters would come with me, and we’d knock out 8 or 10 loads of wash before noon. There were no guys at The Wife Saver. Most of the guys I knew were out on Saturday mornings golfing, skiing, or tearing up the hillsides with their 4-wheel drives or motorcycles. They were camping on the weekends or something.
Once or twice a month, after I got paid, a friend of mine and I would go out for a drink after work on a Friday night. Guys at the bar would come over to chat and ask silly questions like, “Do you like football?” “Do you like The Broncos?” “Do you like to ski?” Absurd! I could no more afford to go to a live sporting event than I could to have a shopping spree at J.C. Penney’s, and as between the two, I knew which one I would take. J.C. Penney’s was a step up from where I usually bought our clothes, and they sold girl scout uniforms for my daughters over there. So, shopping there was a once-a-year event, to do some school shopping.
All of this to say, that “women’s work” doesn’t pay very well. Women’s work generally includes various office jobs, like being a secretary (you must be very proficient and have prior experience working for an executive. It’s hard to work your way up into those kind of positions), but they pay a little more. Working in Payroll or, in those days, benefits administration, (although I’m not sure – you might need a college degree to do that now.) Working in Payroll or Accounts Payable or Receivable are all similar types of jobs. I would say it takes some skill to learn how to do those jobs, but the pay is very low. You aren’t going to be able to move up in your organization doing these types of jobs either, because most companies won’t hire you to manage anything if you don’t have a college degree. When I was doing this kind of work, $30k annually was about the top of the range. It didn’t matter if you changed jobs or not, you weren’t going to make much more than $30k That’s $14.42 per hour, and I was making about that much after 7 years of working for the same company. Then, I changed jobs and took a $2 an hour cut in pay so that I could get a college degree. That turned out to be the smartest thing I ever did for my career.
All those years of hard work and low pay have severely affected my retirement income. But it’s hard to think about investing in your 401k when you’re scrambling to put food on the table for your kids. Eventually, I did get my shit together. I got educated and started earning a bit more money, but I was beat out of several high paying jobs I was qualified for, by men who didn’t have near the quality of education and experience that I had. Many of them were making a six-figure income by the time they were forty, while I never did. This carries over into a woman’s retirement life, because if you earn less in your working career, your social security checks are smaller as well.
The average woman makes about 25% less than men do over a lifetime, and this continues into her retirement years. Now, if you are a married woman, and you stay married for 10 years or longer, when your husband dies, you’ll get the difference between how much he makes on social security and how much you make, but you won’t get both amounts. This means that when your husband dies, you’ll lose about $1,500 a month, immediately. On average, most men get checks of $2k a month or more, and most women get checks in the $1.5k range, give or take. A widow can apply for a one-time death benefit of $255 when her husband, who’s check is larger than hers, dies. A small consolation indeed. By the way, this is true if a man is married to a woman who makes more than he does and then dies before he does. He will get the difference between his check and hers and a $255 death benefit. There may be fewer of these people, and of course, particularly high earners will make considerably more, even when collecting social security. I’m using these figures as sort of the average person. If you were a high earner, and you were born in 1953, and you retire in 2023, you can bring home about $4,500 in social security. To do this, you would have had to average $115k annually during your entire working life, beginning in your early twenties, and then not retire until age 70. There may be a small percentage of people who meet these criteria.
After you reach full retirement age, which for me is age 66 years and 4 months, you can earn money again, even if you took early retirement and started taking your social security early, which I have done for the last couple of years. Because of this, my benefits have been reduced, but It’s hard to work and be a caregiver at the same time. It can be done, but it gets more difficult if you have an elderly parent you’re caring for and they’re home alone during the day. They probably shouldn’t be left alone, so who is going to be home for them? In most families, it’s the wife who does this until the elderly parent moves to assisted living or a full-time nursing facility. Ditto when you’re at an earlier stage of life and caring for small children. The husband, who is generally making the lion’s share of the household income, does not.
I know I’m probably going to catch hell for this post, but I can only write from my own experiences. My basic advice to anyone and everyone, is to start contributing to your company retirement plan as soon as you possibly can and leave the money there if possible. Sometimes people withdraw their money to buy a house or some other necessary thing like transportation. I had to do this when I changed jobs and right at the same time my car was totaled in a car accident. Fortunately, I wasn’t hurt in the accident, but I needed to keep going, and therefore, I took my small nest egg out of my original 401k to purchase a new (used) car so I could get back and forth to my next job. It’s a good thing I had the money, or I would have really been up a creek at that point, but it would’ve been even better if I would have had a separate savings account I could tap into to buy another car. We do what we must.
My years as a single mother were hard, but they taught me to be a good budgeter and money juggler. Could I have done better? Undoubtedly. That’s why I’m telling my story now.