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The Economics of Healthy Aging for Women

Key insights from the Milken Institute Future of Health Summit

By Kerry Hannon

I recently attended a Milken Institute Future of Health Summit panel in Washington, D.C. called Race, Gender, and Work: The Economics of Healthy Aging. The experts’ insights whizzed across a range of topics from caregiving to investing and jobs, but there was one common thread: the critical financial issues facing women. I was especially struck by the particular challenges they noted for women of color and low-income women.

Healthy Aging
Credit: Adobe Stock

“Whether you look at women through the lens of their labor force participation, pay equity, health participation or financial security, women are challenged to live the lives that are healthy, wealthy and secure, and to continue to stay in the workforce the way we need them to stay,” said Patricia Milligan, a senior partner at the global consulting firm Mercer, who was the panel’s moderator.

Sobering Economic Landscape for Women

When you look at the economic landscape for women, the speakers made clear, it’s pretty sobering.

Debra Whitman
Debra Whitman

Said Debra Whitman, AARP’s chief public policy officer: “Women earn less per pay period, but they also are more likely to work part-time. They are more likely to leave the labor force not just to take care of their kids, but their parents and grandparents, so they are out of the labor force for 12 years on average.”

That means their Social Security checks are going to be lower than they would be otherwise, and if the women work part-time, they probably don’t qualify for their employer’s 401(k), Whitman added.

Surprises About Healthy Aging and Women

William Dow, an economist and the interim dean of the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley, made two surprising points about women’s health (physical and mental) that might surprise you.

“There is a conundrum when we speak about women’s health,” Dow said. “Women live, on average, much longer than men. But the gap between men and women has actually been declining. Women’s life expectancy is not growing as fast as men’s has been. Partly that's due to the long arm of smoking decisions earlier on in the century, but we’re also very concerned that this has to do with the changing nature of women’s lives in our society today.”

And, he added, “One of the really interesting statistics, the canary in the coal mine, is that if we look at happiness statistics throughout the life course, what we are seeing is that earlier in the 20 century, women on average were happier than men. That is no longer true. It has sort of flipped.”

The Caregiving Financial Challenge

Dow posed the question: “How much of this has to do with the caregiving that the sandwich generation has been experiencing?” Women, he noted, have been increasingly going into the labor force and fulfilling their career aspirations, but still doing just as much work around the house and caregiving. “And this can create an environment of toxic stress,” he said.

Other panelists agreed, raising key concerns about caregiving as a singular financial and career challenge for women. (Next Avenue’s Richard Eisenberg just wrote about a groundbreaking caregiving initiative on the ballot in Maine on November 6 which, if it passes, could have helpful implications elsewhere.)

Pat Milligan
Pat Milligan

“It is so difficult for me to get CEOs and boards to pay attention to care,” Milligan said. “They’ll pay attention to financial security. They’ll pay attention to the workplace of the future, but when we try to get them to think about a philosophy on care for their employees, it is a challenge. I don't think they understand the ROI [return on investment] of caring about care.”

She added: “While we value women, supposedly, and we want to pay them equally, we do not value caregivers. If you look at what percentage of women around the world between 45 and 55 leave the workforce to provide caregiving, and you look at what is the present value of that lost income stream, from any economic perspective, it is really troubling.”

Sarita Gupta
Sarita Gupta

Sarita Gupta, executive director of Jobs With Justice and co-director of Caring Across Generations, said she knows all too well the squeeze that “too many women in this country are experiencing.” Said Gupta: “This is a very personal issue for me. I am a sandwich generation family caregiver and I work full-time. I care for a father with Alzheimer’s and I have an 8-year-old daughter.”

Lisa Margeson
Lisa Margeson

Lisa Margeson, managing director and head of retirement client experience and communications at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, offered this revelation from research conducted by Merrill Lynch and Age Wave on widowhood and women’s financial wellness: Women spend, on average, 48 percent of their working adult lives outside of the workforce (including time spent caring for children, aging parents and spouses) versus only 28 percent, on average, for men. As a result, due to career interruptions and lower pay, by retirement age, a woman will have saved $1,055,000 less than a man with a similar job who stayed continuously in the workforce.

Breaking Things Down by Race

One of the big themes that emerged from the panel was that each woman faces a unique set of challenges, so there are no simple solutions.

“It starts at birth,” said Cara James, director of the Office of Minority Health, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. “Your experience is based on where you sit. The experiences are very different for different people.”

Milligan concurred, saying that all the generic data about women must be broken down to the particular cohort of women.

“My favorite one is pay equity. Many of you know we all use the statistic 76 cents to 77 cents on the dollar every woman makes for every man,” she said. “But if you look at that through the lens of what do Hispanic women make? Fifty-six cents on the dollar. What do Black women make? Sixty-four cents on the dollar. Every one of these topics is very complex. What are we doing to insure that that changes?”

Whitman noted that AARP recently found that age discrimination in the workplace is especially problematic for Black women. When AARP surveyed workers over 45, it learned that although 64 percent of women over 45 surveyed said they’d faced age discrimination or knew someone who had, that number jumped to three out of four for African American women.

Whitman added that “Hispanic women actually live three years longer than white women, who live three years longer than African American women. That disparity also varies a lot by your income, your education and where you live.”

Marriage is a huge factor when it comes to economic security for many women and here, too, there are important disparities by race.

“African American women have significantly lower marriage rates than white women," James said. “That gap impacts your income, impacts your property, impacts what you see in retirement and it impacts your health outcome.”

Optimism and Advice

There was one chord of optimism at the panel, though.

One of the most promising trends is the increasing educational attainment of women,” Dow said. “As we take the longer view, women previously had much lower education and they were channeled into jobs that had different salary-income growth potential.” Higher college attainment will naturally push more women into higher-paying jobs, Dow predicted. And we need to encourage men to take time off of work for caregiving, he suggested.

Margeson offered one wish to help all women, regardless of age, race or income: “We’ve got to strive at breaking the taboo around women talking about their personal finances,” she said. Margeson’s advice to the women in the audience: “If you're uncomfortable having those conversations, seek a mentor. If you're comfortable having those conversations, be a mentor.”

Photogtaph of Kerry Hannon
Kerry Hannon is the author of Great Pajama Jobs: Your Complete Guide to Working From Home. She has covered personal finance, retirement and careers for The New York Times, Forbes, Money, U.S. News & World Report and USA Today, among others. She is the author of more than a dozen books including Never Too Old to Get Rich: The Entrepreneur's Guide to Starting a Business Mid-Life, Money Confidence: Really Smart Financial Moves for Newly Single Women and What's Next? Finding Your Passion and Your Dream Job in Your Forties, Fifties and Beyond. Her website is Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon. Read More
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