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Baby Boomer’s Status Is Changing

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Question: As a 55-year old baby boomer woman, I feel I am at a disadvantage in finding a well-paying job.  Maybe it’s because I never believed age would get in my way.  Weren’t the boomers supposed to have it all?  What happened?  

Answer: Yes, at one time the 78 million baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964 were the chosen among the generations.  Their large numbers meant they had an enormous impact on almost everything.  Cheryl Russell, author of “The Master Trend” (Plenum, 1993) writes that “baby boomers have succeeded in getting almost everything they wanted out of life—so far.”  The operative words are “so far.”

When they needed schools, the schools were built.  In 1957, more elementary schools were built than any other year. Ten years later more colleges were built than every before.  When boomers needed cars, they were designed and built just for them.  In the 1970’s, when they needed houses, new housing starts reached record levels.  When they needed jobs, millions were created.

Jumping forward, a new time and new economy have made the old rules and trends almost irrelevant.   Women have come a long way.  Perhaps their story will help us understand “what happened.”

Gail Collins, a New York Times Op-Ed columnist, describes the journey of women in her book “When Everything Changed: the Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present” (Little Brown, 2009).    Much of the following history is based on Collins’ book.

Women have a long history of being perceived as the weaker sex.  The colonists believed that women were morally, intellectually and physically inferior.  Consequently, Collins writes, it was believed they should find husbands quickly to keep them on the “straight and narrow.”

Fortunately, the colonial wife had a bit more status because she made everything necessary for her husband and 14 children to survive.  She made candles, soap, butter and cheese.  She did the spinning, weaving, dyeing, knitting, sewing, dressmaking, tailoring and shoemaking — and made hats.

During the Industrial Revolution, as families moved from farms to cities, women focused on household duties.  Their status increased somewhat as they spent time nurturing their children, cleaning and cooking. Even with increased status, though, the generally accepted value was that “men provided and protected while women served and deferred.”

In the 1950’s, husbands had control of their wives’ earnings.  Married women could not establish a business without their husband’s permission or get a credit card without a male co-signer.  In some states, women were barred from serving on juries.

In evaluating a couple’s income to handle a mortgage or car loan, the wife’s salary was irrelevant if she was under 28 years old.  If a woman was in her 30s, only half of her income was taken into consideration.  If she was 40 or older – or proved she was sterilized – her entire salary was counted in the calculations.

Many women went to college to get a husband who could land a good job. And Christmas break was engagement time.  The median age of marriage was 20; many women wanted four children.  Couples were expected to stay married and unmarried women were considered a failure.

The 1960’s was a period of time when the economy was strong and the standard of living was high.  Women’s roles were defined by social traditions that were just part of life. Few women questioned the inequities; most never noticed.

And then Betty Friedan entered the scene.  She was a freelance writer living in a suburb of New York.  McCall’s Magazine commissioned her to write a “defense of the well-rounded education she had gotten at Smith College 15 years earlier.” The purpose of the piece was to describe college as the best preparation for a woman to be a good wife and mother and to live happily with her husband. Friedan surveyed Smith College graduates to determine how well their college experience prepared them for married life.

The results were astounding, at least for the 1960s. The women described a problem that “had no name.”  They felt “empty… incomplete … as though I don’t exist.”  “You wake up in the morning and there is nothing to look forward to.”  They were depressed, exhausted from caring for their children and yearned for job opportunities.    The survey results formed the basis for Friedan’s landmark book, “The Feminine Mystique,” first published in 1963.

The women asked, “Is this all there is?”  Many turned to tranquilizers and thought the problem might be their children, husbands or perhaps they just needed to redecorate the house or move to a better neighborhood. Some thought having an affair or another baby would solve the problem.

Some women did have jobs and careers, yet most were short term.  Employers assumed that female college graduates would work a few years and then retire to a domestic life.

In Gail Collins’ book “When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to Present” (Little Brown, 2009), the author notes that one of the most glamorous short-term jobs for women in the ‘60s was that of stewardess.  The average tenure was 18 months. The women had to be slender, were consistently weighed and measured by counselors, and had to be single.  “Soft and white” hands were preferred.

But female professional women did exist. In 1960, 6 percent of doctors were female, 3 percent of lawyers were female and less than 1 percent of engineers were female.  If a woman wanted to be a journalist, it was assumed she would write for the “woman’s page” of a publication; a female physician would be a pediatrician; and an attorney would sit in a back room practicing real estate or insurance law.

Jumping forward, we have good news.  According to Collins, today women have almost half of the seats in medical and law schools; they dominate pharmacy and veterinary medicine; about 40 percent of dental graduates are women; they now make up 20 percent  of scientists, as opposed to 3 percent in 1960; and about one-third of chairs in top orchestras are occupied by women.

Women have made great strides, but aren’t there yet. The hourly pay for women is 80 cents to every dollar that men earn.  In 2005, 17 percent of law partners were women, up from 13 percent a decade before.

Unfortunately, this data does not ease the frustration of being unable to find work.  Women, indeed, have come a long way. But history and trends seem irrelevant given today’s economy.  So, what to do?

AARP offers some useful tips for self-assessment and more at aarp.org/money/work/articles/a_guide_to_navigating.html.  The self-assessment checklist includes:

  • I have assessed my job skills and preferences.
  • I have researched jobs and employers that interest me.
  • I have created a basic cover letter and resume that can be tailored to different positions.
  • I have identified ways to update my skills or to learn new ones.
  • I have created a daily schedule of activities to keep my job search going.
  • I have a network of people I can go to for personal and professional support.
  • I have changed my job-hunting strategy to get better results with my search.

Consider part-time work as well as entrepreneurial opportunities.   Use LinkedIn (linkedin.com) or Plaxo (plaxo.com) to extend your network and to become an active member of local professional groups.

The founder of WomenBloom (womenbloom.com), a web community helping women to make the most of  midlife writes, “Patience is a virtue. When you’re over 55, it simply takes longer, but persistence does pay off.”

Best wishes for keeping perspective and for a successful search.

Copyright Helen Dennis 2010. All rights reserved.

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