July 1, 2014 by Jean
In his book The Experience of Retirement, Robert S. Weiss notes that,
All retirees face the same two challenges of retirement: to manage its threat of marginality and to utilize its promise of freedom. (p. 14)
For women, the threat of marginality includes the twin problems of invisibility and denial of competence that come with age. Most women of a certain age have had the experience of being socially invisible – not being able to get anyone to bring you a menu or take your order in a restaurant, being ignored by clerks in stores when you try to ask for help, etc. When it first happens (in my experience, sometime in middle age), it is shocking; after a while, it just becomes routine. This weekend, while I was shopping at the local farmer’s market, I was hanging back near the entrance of one booth, waiting while a young couple chose and purchased produce, because the space was tight. When the couple finished their transaction and turned to leave, they spread out across the width of the booth, holding hands in between. There was no way for me to get out of their way, but they seemed completely unaware of my presence until the man just about ran into me and then acted like I had behaved inappropriately by blocking his way! Invisibility.
I can live with invisibility. As Harry Potter discovered with his invisibility cloak, it can have advantages. What I find much more insidious and difficult is the denial of competence that comes with age. Twice this winter, I rented cars from the same company at airports where I have been renting cars regularly for almost 20 years. But this year, at both airports, the rental agents insisted that I needed to rent a bigger car because I wouldn’t be able to safely drive the small one I wanted in snow. One even mentioned what he would and wouldn’t want his mother to drive! Both rental agents persisted until I finally said, “Look, I’ve been driving small cars safely in snow since before you were born; it’s not a problem for me.” What had changed since the previous winters when I had rented small cars from this company without any problem? My 65th birthday. Last week, I had a similarly patronizing and obnoxious conversation with the insurance agent who handles my homeowner’s insurance. I know that these conversations are a precursor to the experience of infantilization, when any display of competence on the part of an older woman is treated as the cute performance of a precocious child. (This is also when complete strangers start addressing you as “honey” and “dear.”)
Happily, not everyone treats me as incompetent and inconsequential – at least not yet. Interestingly, I have found a refreshing lack of this attitude in the blue-collar workers who have come to work on my house – the very men who are often stereotyped as more sexist than educated, professional types. The plumber who came out to do some work for me last summer treated me like an adult peer. He was quite happy to educate me about what he was doing, and when he explained my difficulties with changing my whole-house water filter as a problem of “not enough arm strength,” he accompanied that explanation with some suggestions about how to extend the length of my filter wrench to get more leverage. Similarly, the contractor and subcontractors working on my house addition are always willing to discuss what they are doing and treat my questions and suggestions as intelligent ones deserving of a serious response.
Despite my positive interactions with these workmen, I know that I will continue to experience the threat of marginality. The big question for me is how to address it effectively. I intend to resist, and I can identify two levels of resistance. At the individual level, I need to figure out when to fight against marginalization and when to avoid it. I plan to avoid further interaction with the obnoxious insurance agent by switching my insurance to a different insurance company with which I have had much better experiences. With the car rental company, where I believe the patronizing responses were scripted by company policy, I have used an on-line form to send them a note describing my experience and suggesting ways they could change their policy (e.g., by asking all drivers who reserve small cars in winter whether they are experienced driving in snow and pursuing the conversation only with those who express discomfort with winter driving). But I don’t think individual resistance is enough; collective action is also needed. Fortunately, we baby boomers are a big enough group that we can get action and make change if we work together on these issues.