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Women Retiring Later*

June 26, 2001

Women Forced to Delay Retirement


Michael Clevenger for The New York Times

Ann Kitchens works for a chemical company. Her husband was an Army sergeant, and her divorce came before a rule change gave a woman a share of her former husband's military pensions.

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The Possessions Go, The Memories Stay (March 21, 2001)

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Nancy Palmieri for The New York Times

Judith Bourgeois, a self-employed consultant, was reluctant to drive a hard bargain and received a $90,000 cash settlement; she now regrets that she did not fight for a share of her former husband's pension.

The New York Times


undreds of thousands of women in their 60's, part of the surge of divorces that started a generation ago, are finding themselves forced to stay in the work force because they lack sufficient money to retire. Wages in effect are becoming their pensions.

Women alone in old age have always been at greater risk of falling into poverty than have married women. But until recently, women alone generally meant widows, who at least had the pensions and savings their husbands had left them, and a tradition of living with children. Widows greatly outnumbered older divorced women until the late 1990's, but now for the first time the divorced outnumber widows.

"The only advice I can give to divorced older women is to keep working, for as long as they can," said Cindy Hounsell, executive director of the Women's Institute for a Secure Retirement in Washington.

That pressure to work played a role in the Bush administration's recently enacted tax cut, which allows older people to save more in tax sheltered retirement accounts. As Congress prepares to debate Social Security reform, women's groups are arguing that women should get credit for years at home raising children, so their pensions will be greater in the event of divorce. And older married women, for that matter, are staying on at the job to supplement the retirement benefits of their husbands, whittled down by layoffs, job shifting and pension cuts.

But divorced women are increasingly the group among the elderly most at risk. Susan Smith Parkhurst, who lives in Denver, is one. Like so many women of her generation, Mrs. Parkhurst, who is 63, stopped working when her children started to arrive in the 1960's. Her husband earned enough as an investment adviser, and she busied herself with motherhood and volunteer work. Then after 20 years of marriage, she found herself divorced at 48 and pushed into the work force.

Her divorce settlement prodded her to work, by removing her name from her husband's health insurance and giving her very little income. Nor did she get a stake in any future pension. The women's movement had opened the workplace to opportunity, however, and Mrs. Parkhurst soon landed at Tempest Investment Counselors. She rose in the ranks, got raises and now, nearly 16 years later, she is closing in on retirement age. But she cannot afford to give up a salary. Like so many older women, she has not worked long enough to earn the pension of someone who worked a lifetime.

To avoid this pitfall, Ms. Hounsell advises married women to keep retirement and divorce always in mind. "If we can get to women before a divorce, we tell them to include part of the husband's pension in the settlement," she said. "Most women don't know to do that. And I tell young women, `Don't stay home and take care of the children unless you make sure there is a personal pension set up for you, an I.R.A. You don't redo the kitchen or the baby's room until you are sure there is enough saved in that I.R.A."

Mrs. Parkhurst took none of these steps before her divorce. She recently told her bosses that she would retire in December as chief of Tempest's back-office operation. "This is a very good firm," she said, "but you can track investment accounts for just so long in your life. It is time for me to have a change, to do something that matters to me." Retirement may be her yearning, she acknowledges, but with so few years at Tempest, her more than $45,000 in wages would shrink in retirement to $25,000 in pensions and income from savings.

That is not enough, she says, and she will not turn to her three grown children for help; she still gives them gifts. She had majored in biology at Mount Holyoke, graduating in 1959, and had worked after college as an assistant in cancer research. Now she is gambling that she can cover her income shortfall by getting a job in environmental research, or in a similarly interesting scientific field. "Hopefully, I will not have to work full time," she said.

The ranks of older women are swelling with those who divorced and have not remarried. Among the nearly 12 million women in their late 50's and early 60's, for example, 14.4 percent were divorced as of 1998, the most recent Census Bureau number. That was up from 3.8 percent in 1965 and 9.9 percent in 1990. Widows, in contrast, declined to 13.2 percent in 1998 from 21.6 percent in 1965 and 17.2 percent in 1990.

The Bush administration's tax cut raises the annual amount that can be deducted from taxable income and placed in a retirement account to $15,000 from $10,500 over five years. For those 50 and over, the upper limit will reach $20,000 — a chance for the elderly to crash save for retirement, if they earn enough to save.

"Only women making a lot of money can afford to catch up that way," said Heidi Hartmann, director of the Institute for Women's Policy Research in Washington.

Retirement is financially easier for men. While most women in their 60's took time off to raise children — and younger women often still do — men worked through their adult lives, qualifying for larger pensions. Men's higher wages also gave them an edge.

The median weekly wage of a woman working full time today is only 76 percent of a man's weekly median, the Labor Department reports — qualifying women for smaller pensions. And women are less likely to hold jobs that include company pensions than are men.

Putting all these advantages together, men over the age of 65 average nearly $30,000 a year in income, double the average for women.

The American pension system, says Phyllis Moen, a Cornell University sociologist, is designed as "a lock-step process of continuous, full- time employment. Very few women follow that pattern, even now, and because of downsizing, many men are not following it either anymore."

Judith Bourgeois certainly is not. At 61, she is self-employed, operating JCS Consulting out of her home in Wilbraham, Mass., near Springfield, running training classes and workshops for corporate clients. She has a bachelor's degree and a master's in human resource development. But she started out with a secretarial job after high school graduation in 1957, then married a policeman and had two children.

A job at Weight Watchers in those years, motivating people to lose weight, put her on the track that eventually led to her present work, which involves motivating a client's employees. When her youngest child was 13, she tried college, discovered that she was a good student and went on to graduate magna cum laude in American studies. Corporate jobs followed, and as her new life started rolling, her husband continued in his routines as a police officer.

"My husband, God bless him, was very supportive," Ms. Bourgeois said. But their interests had grown apart. "I loved the theater and music and reading," she said, "and those were not the things that interested him."

The divorce came in 1993, and since she sought it, not he, she did not drive that hard a bargain, she says. She received a $90,000 cash settlement; he kept the house, and all rights to his police pension, which he collected until his death in 1998 at age 63. Her business does not yet generate enough cash to cover her living expenses, she says, and she regrets not having fought for a share of that pension.

"Every so often I think, `Wouldn't it be nice to be collecting a pension at this point?' but it is a fleeting thought," Ms. Bourgeois said. "I don't see myself ever retiring."

Most older women are still married, the most likely avenue to sufficient income in old age. But even married women increasingly delay retirement. The satisfactions of a career started in midlife, in response to opportunities the women's movement created, keep many in the workplace, the women themselves say. But so does the desire to build up retirement benefits to supplement the often less than adequate pensions of their husbands.

Men's retirement income has been whittled down by layoffs, job changes, wage freezes, premature retirement and the gradual shift from pensions financed by companies to retirement income based on an employee's own savings in a 401(k)-style plan.

As a result of the various pressures, the labor force participation rates of women in their early 60's — covering those holding jobs or hunting for them — rose to a record 40.1 percent last year from 32.6 percent in 1981, and there has been a similar steady rise among women in their late 60's. The proportion of older men in the labor force, in contrast, has fallen significantly the last 30 years, although recently it has inched up.

Like other leaders of the women's movement, Ms. Moen says that Congress would be wrong to raise the age requirement for full Social Security benefits, a proposal now on the table.

Older women, Ms. Moen says, particularly divorced older women, need greater access to these public pensions, not less. She would give Social Security credits for the years that a woman stays home to care for children, a proposal also favored by Ms. Hounsell and Ms. Hartmann.

They are particularly opposed to channeling some of the Social Security tax into private retirement accounts, on the ground that the diverted money in a man's private account would be out of reach of his former wife. Under current law, a divorced woman has rights to a share of her ex-husband's Social Security pension, if the marriage lasted at least 10 years.

"We are on the cusp of a major policy reformulation led by the baby boomers," Ms. Moen argued, hopefully. "In old age, they won't tolerate the gaps between what they want and what is available to them."

That does not help Ann Kitchens, 67, of Louisville. Two pensions have already slipped through her fingers. She had been married to an Army sergeant, and they were divorced in 1973, before the rules changed and a woman gained the right to share in her divorced husband's military pension. "I still have no idea how much he gets," she said.

After the divorce she worked at a liquor distillery in Louisville. But that job ended in a layoff before she had been there long enough to qualify for a pension.

And now, Süd-Chemie, a German- owned chemical company, is pushing her to retire in August, offering an incentive that she says she cannot refuse. She has worked there since 1980, rising to her present post as a benefits administrator from the shop floor. But for all that achievement, her $41,000 salary will shrink to a $9,000 company pension and $12,500 in Social Security.

Her immediate concerns are car payments — $428.50 a month for another year — and idleness. "If I can make it through the car payments, I'll probably be O.K.," she said, "but I don't want to sit around. I am not in a frame of mind to retire, and I have to supplement my pension."

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