Can Older Women “Have It All,” Too?

How longer lives will affect sexism.

Malaga, Spain
Older women who live alone are even more likely to live below the poverty threshold. If that trend holds, the radically long-living women of the future will remain incentivized to tether their economic realities to men throughout their lives.

Photo by Jon Nazca/Reuters

Can women ever “have it all”? In an era in which American women are on average dying at the ripe old age of 81, the cultural conversation around “work-life balance” is laser-focused on the tension between chasing after rugrats and scrambling up the career ladder. That’s a juggling act that affects women most acutely in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. But what if we all lived to 150? Could we have it all then?

Perhaps when women’s lives stretch into the 15th decade, reproduction will interfere less with our work and personal goals because it will represent a smaller slice of our protracted lives. “Rather than packing so many life events into the years between 30 and 65, both women and men could integrate work, family, and leisure over many years,” Clayman Institute for Gender Research managing editor Brenda Fink wrote in 2011. But I’m skeptical that longer lifespans will translate into more equitable ones. Even if the popular “have it all” discussion is directed at younger and midlife women (and affluent ones at that), the ramifications of the female caregiving burden extend well past Junior’s 18th birthday.

Among parents with minor children, fathers spend twice as much time engaged in paid work than mothers do, and moms perform twice as much nonmonetized work at home, including child care and housework. But when women drop out of the workforce or convert to part-time schedules to raise kids, they don’t just miss out on salaries in the years they’re at home—they get locked into a lower pay grade for the rest of their lives. The pay gap compounds as men and women age, meaning that wealth disparities between men and women could only intensify when we live longer. Lower income throughout life also translates to smaller Social Security payouts after retirement. The wealth gap is greatest among people older than 65—11 percent of those women are living in poverty, compared to 6.6 percent of men. Older women who live alone are even more likely to live below the poverty threshold. If that trend holds, the radically long-living women of the future will remain incentivized to tether their economic realities to men throughout their lives, which will again compound the factors that contribute to their lower wages in the first place. And even if husbands keep dying younger than their wives—and passing on their wealth when they do so—many older women may still be left with insufficient skills for managing that money when it’s suddenly under their control.

Women aren’t just chiefly responsible for raising their own kids. They’re also more likely to be tasked with caring for their kids’ kids, as well as their own aging parents. As Laura Helmuth noted last month in Slate, the possibilities for the human lifespan shifted radically when people started living reliably past 30—we’re talking way back in the Paleolithic here—because that’s the age “when you’re old enough to be a grandparent.” Helmuth posits that “the evolutionary advantages of living long enough to help raise our children’s children may be what made it biologically plausible for us to live to once unthinkably old ages today.”

We can thank women for that biological plausibility. And even as gender roles have advanced past the Paleolithic version, the caregiving burden on them hasn’t eased. Though they work more hours at paid jobs, mothers in 2011 also spent more time on child care than women did in 1965. That’s partly because the expectation for hands-on childrearing has extended past childhood and deep into the teenage years. Expanded lifespans could conceivably grant humans a more drawn-out adolescent period, which would mean more years of unpaid work for their mothers.

The same could be said of the radical extension of our golden years. In an era of radical longevity, we may have more generations of people around to keep one another alive, but the sheer length of our lives won’t necessarily mean greater gender equity in how those roles are assigned. Juggling the care of younger and older generations could still fall on middle-aged women, however we define them: As our population has aged, so have our caregivers. (Also in Future Tense: Liza Mundy looks at how life extension would change the nuclear family—and create caregiving headaches.)

There’s another nonmonetized duty that’s unfairly placed on women who are competing to work and raise kids—that they look smokin’ hot while they do it. And in American culture, that means that they look young. “Ageism often increases sexism,” says Erin Gentry Lamb, an aging studies scholar and co-director of the Center for Literature and Medicine at Hiram College. “We tend to be more prejudiced toward older women than older men.” That applies not just to how much money women and men amass throughout their lives, but also how they’re expected to spend it. As baby boomers have grown older and flusher, marketers have responded by targeting products to them—often, products designed to make them look younger, particularly if they are female. And the more marketers package and sell youth to a radically aging population, the more low-income people—as in all “having it all” discussions—will be priced out of the equation.

The real question about the effect of longevity on gender roles, Lamb says, is this: “Will longer lives change sexism in our society?” It’s tempting to think that once we harness the technology to radically extend our lives, we’ll have the chance to live to see a brighter future. Perhaps a new class of centenarian elders will even be on the forefront of human progress, thanks to the wisdom they’ve accumulated through their unimaginably long lives. Or maybe a growing group of very old people will impede progress just by staying alive.

In 2012, under-30 millennials were much more likely to vote Democrat than members of the Silent Generation, which comprises people ages 66 to 83. But Silent Generation members were also a lot more likely to vote in general. They remove themselves out of the voting population when they die, which could contribute to stagnating cultural progress as they take longer and longer to kick the can. Take gay marriage, for example. A 2013 Pew report found that 70 percent of millennials supported the legalization of gay marriage, compared with 31 percent of Silent Generation folks. Silent Gen voters are also shifting their thinking on that issue, but they’re starting from a much more conservative baseline. Or consider our elders’ position on traditional heterosexual coupling. Americans older than 65 are less likely than all younger generations to agree that “marriage is becoming obsolete,” that “new family arrangements are a good thing,” that “children don’t need a mother and father to grow up happy,” and that the “best marriage is one where husband and wife both work.” The continued engagement of older and older people in American civic life could only reinforce more traditional conceptions of gender as older generations stick around, and keep voting the same way they always did.

When we all start living to 150, we may see a generation of women who are encouraged to look just like their great-grandchildren but are still living under policies dictated by their great-grandparents. Women may not “have it all” then, but they’ll probably still be consumed by the pursuit.