Women’s work is never done

An older woman at her workplace past her retirement age while welcoming the changing trends in society that will support them.

Our generation of women discovered a world our mothers never knew.  We went to work in droves and we succeeded. We worked because we needed the income, but if you’re anything like me, I knew at a young age, that I needed more than marriage and children to feel fulfilled and to be happy.

At 65, I can honestly say that my work was often my salvation. I like to work, to set tasks and reach goals. I like to stay on deadline. I prefer to see things done well and in a timely fashion. These are qualities that I learned by working most of my life, by learning from those who work smart, not long, and who tried, at least most of the time, to give 100 per cent to the job at hand.  There are so many women of retirement age that feel the same way.

When we talk, contrary to all notions, we mostly discuss business and career, plans for future projects, health issues, and then the conversation moves to children, and finally our spouses.  I know it sounds cold-hearted, but there is only so much you can say about your wonderful, successful children and your kind-hearted, accepting partner.

Today, we’re seeing the results of women’s massive, headlong plunge into the working world. In her recent article in the New York Times, With More Women Fulfilled by Work, Retirement Has to Wait, Claire Cain Miller reports that “the arc of women’s working lives is changing —reaching higher levels when they’re younger and stretching out much longer…”

When feminism was embraced by our generation in the 60’s and 70’s, we struggled to become like men.  Most women I knew back then stayed at work until their water broke and returned six weeks later. Maternity leave didn’t exist in Canada until 1971 when 15 weeks of paid leave become the law. It increased to six months in 1990. Now it goes for one year. Some women used feminism to hit men over the head with political correctness, but I wager that most women found a sure footed method to building a solid career with a degree of financial independence for themselves and better opportunities for their offspring while becoming role models to their daughters.

At the beginning of the 1960s just over 30 per cent of women aged 20 to 30 participated in the Canadian labour force. By the end of the 1970s it had doubled to just over 60 per cent, and in 2012 over 70 per cent of young women were participating in the labour force. And today, 70 per cent of mothers with children under five years of age are working.

Did that hurt us or hurt our kids? It’s too early to tell, although I would hazard a guess that it didn’t. Studies show that day care children do just as well or better than stay-at-home toddlers. Most of us, with rare exceptions, didn’t turn into the mean-spirited executive or Mommie Dearest that we often see successful women portrayed as on screen. In fact, some of my female supervisors were mentors, and I hope my women employees can say the same about me.

Interestingly enough, what’s happened is women are “significantly more likely to work into their 60s and 70s, often full time,” according to Miller’s article. More of us are remaining at work because we enjoy it.  Believe it or not, men’s role in the workplace after age 60 has also risen in the U.S., “but not as steeply as women’s,” and it could be that we’ve struggled so diligently to get where we are today that women just don’t want to quit until we must.

Women with higher education and savings are more common remaining at work—full or part time—than those without. Our occupations are closely tied to our identity. When I started university, it was perfectly acceptable for female students to have relationships with their male professors. When I was in graduate school, I hardly knew anyone who wasn’t attached to one professor or another. Like the Hollywood casting couch, it was one of the ways of getting ahead.

Luckily, times change and women began speaking out. More female post-secondary students came forward with harrowing tales of how they were pressed into inappropriate relations by their male professors. Best selling author Camilla Gibb said it best: “I am guilty of showing my age and being a product of my generation where, in the late ’80s when I was an undergrad, the sexual impropriety of professors was so commonplace we thought it was normal.”

For the most part, female students aren’t subjected to that kind of harassment these days. It’s certainly not gone, but when it happens, it can hit the press as it did in the case of author Steven Galloway, the head of the creative writing department at University of British Columbia. He lost his job and his reputation.

At the college where I worked for 27 years, the pressure was off. The year I started  teaching, a woman president was hired and just having her as the top executive changed what was considered acceptable.

The path is being cleared for women to fully enjoy their careers and benefit from their longevity in the workplace. “If people work when they’re younger, economists say, they’re more likely to work when they’re older. And because women are marrying and having babies later, they spend more time pursuing careers first. That means that even if they take breaks to care for children, they are likely to return to work and to work past a typical retirement age. Children have no effect on working later in life,” a U.S. study found.

Recently Finance Minister Bill Morneau said he’s “open” to a recommendation from his newly appointed Advisory Council on Economic Growth that Ottawa should encourage seniors to stay in the work force, despite having reversed Conservative plans to raise the eligibility age for the Old Age Security Pension from 65 to 67 last year. The 14-member council is chaired by Dominic Barton of McKinsey & Co. and is made up of senior business leaders, economists and academics.

 “There are more older Canadians that we think can work and want to work but don’t, because the incentives aren’t there,” Barton remarked, suggesting a look at removing pension clawbacks for seniors who return to work. “We didn’t get into the detail of how to do it,” he added. “We’re just setting a direction.”

Morneau’s turnabout on this issue isn’t exactly surprising. Not only does it maintain funds in government coffers for longer —ka-ching—it fits with the new dedication of women to remain in the workplace. On the other hand, those who work as manual labourers or are on their feet for most of their shifts and who could be facing two more years until retirement, should be treated differently. Comparing a nurse’s day to an accountant’s isn’t realistic. Physical work demands different considerations.

When government policy meets the zeitgeist, expect it to be reflected in the next federal budget.

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