TEXT OF INTERVIEW
Tess Vigeland: When you think about a really difficult, yet rewarding career, what comes to mind? Physician? Policeman? Teacher? How about stay-at-home mom?
Well, the author of the book “The Feminine Mistake” says women who opt out of the workforce — or never join it in the first place — are putting their financial lives at enormous risk.
Leslie Bennetts, why do you think it’s such a big mistake?
Leslie Bennetts: They are only assessing it at a particular moment in time. If you are 35 and you’re home with your children, you might say, “Oh, it’s worked out really well for me.” But what about if you’re 50 and your husband leaves your or dies or gets sick or incapacitated or loses his job and you’re suddenly struggling to support your family. What you’re likely to find if you try to go back into the workplace at a moment of crisis or need is that you can’t get back in and get a decent job with benefits. This is a very unpleasant surprise for women who suddenly find that they do need to earn a living.
Vigeland: Does financial self-sufficiency then have to come from working or can it also be part of how you are involved in managing the finances at home whether you work or not?
Bennetts: Well that depends on how many financial resources you have. I mean, if your husband is a billionaire and you’ve set up lots of provisions whereby if something happens to him you’re still going to be provided for then there’s no problem. If you don’t want to work, you are not terribly vulnerable if you don’t, but I find that most women have not really been that serious about financial planning. Again, this is what the data show. All the investment advisers and financial planners that I talked to said that women have a tremendous tendency to leave these things to men. They may pay the household bills, but they don’t really involve themselves with the larger financial planning of the family.
Vigeland: But if they were to get involved in that planning, wouldn’t that serve to ameliorate the problem of not working?
Bennetts: Only if they have resources that are great enough to provide for their futures. But these days women are routinely living into their 80s and 90s and very few women realize that if something happens to their husbands when they’re 50, they may have four decades or more to support themselves on whatever financial resources he left behind. The average age of widowhood in America is only 55.
Vigeland: The average age of widowhood is 55 years old?
Bennetts: According to the AARP, yes.
Vigeland: That’s astonishing.
Bennetts: Yes it is. And by the time women are in their early 60s, two-thirds of American women are without partners.
Vigeland: I wonder what your thoughts are on women who really believe and feel that it’s what they want to do with their life to stay home and work with their children and raise their children because your argument really is that you have to at some point be a part of the workforce so that later on if something — God forbid — happens, you are able to get a job and support your family.
Bennetts: I am not saying it’s not a valid choice to stay home with your children; I’m saying it’s an extremely dangerous choice and one that works out very badly for many women and their kids. In my book, I say was it really worth it to be home when your second child lost his fourth tooth if something happens to your husband and you end up losing your home entirely? I’ve talked to so many women who find themselves suddenly without a breadwinner and a lot of the adverse consequences of divorce in the society are really a result of the economic impact. Women’s standard of living plummets by 38 percent in cases of divorce, whereas men’s standard of living goes up by 26 percent. But it’s the women and the children who suffer. So I’m not criticizing the inherent worth or value of the decision to be home with your children, but I am saying it’s a very risky choice.
Vigeland: Are there options for those women outside of going back to work?
Bennetts: Well first of all, they have to do sensible financial planning within the context of the family, sit down with their husbands make a plan for what’s going to happen to the wife and the children if something happens to him. But second of all, if women are going to take time-outs from the workforce, there are ways that you can handle time out to maximize your chances of getting back in, but again, I find a lot of women are not aware of that. I think that it’s a big shock when women learn that as little as three years out of the workforce results in women taking a nearly 40 percent hit in their earnings. So when women do take time-out, if they can target their volunteer work to areas that are relevant to their professional fields, that can help them later on. There are lots of things like that that people could do, but I find that many women simply retire to a domestic life and they think “Oh, I don’t have to think about this until I want to come back.” They don’t realize how quickly the ageism and sexism kick in, but they don’t know this until after they’re already up against it.
Vigeland: Leslie Bennetts is the author of “The Feminine Mistake.” Thanks so much for coming in.
Bennetts: Thank you for having me.
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