The Threat of Marginality

9

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.

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9 thoughts on “The Threat of Marginality

  1. I could have written this post except without the more professional words that you used to describe the situation. I’ve often thought that anyone 65 and older needs to wear a sandwich board on their body listing their education, skills, and accomplishments in order for the younger generations to recognize us as adult peers. As we get older, they treat us like infant children except we aren’t cute anymore either so they certainly don’t want to get too close. 🙂 I’ll be reading to hear what type of remedies you come up with because I’ve done the switching of vendors and the company feedback. Maybe that is why there are Senior Centers in most towns because we all need a support group that really understands. And, this post didn’t even include all the phone calls about the free life support systems they just need your mailing address for. 🙂

    • Jean says:

      Judy, I believe it was a comment you made on one of my earlier posts that got me thinking about this issue. So while you didn’t actually write this post, you did inspire it. I’ll let you know what happens with the complaint to the car rental company; so far I’ve just gotten a definitely-not-to-the-point form letter response telling me how valued a customer I am (as long as there’s no snow in the forecast). It would be nice to take Senior Centers beyond the support group function to make them platforms for collective action.
      BTW, when I first read your post, I didn’t understand your reference to the phone calls about the free life support systems — and then I got my first such phone call yesterday! 😐

  2. Melanie says:

    I recently rented a car from Hertz and was astonished at the lengths to which the agent at the counter went to get me to rent a bigger car after I had reserved a compact one on the Internet. They do this to get more money (bigger cars rent for more and they can charge more to insure and fuel the car) and I think they do it to allocate customers to the fleet of vehicles they happen to have in stock at any particular location. It was annoying–they do this to everyone, not just seniors. Stand your ground but don’t let these things divert you from enjoying your well-earned retirement!

    • Jean says:

      Melanie, Thanks for your comment. I am all too familiar with the “let’s put you in something more comfortable” bait and switch car rental company tactics, and over the years I’ve developed reasonably effective strategies for dealing with them. Usually, I walk up to the counter, hand over my credit card and license, and while they are pulling up my reservation, preempt most of the sales pitch by saying “Smaller is more comfortable, I’ll bring it back full, and I don’t need any extra insurance coverage.” I also discovered that when I reserve a compact car, they’ll tell me they don’t have any and try to put me in an intermediate or full-sized car. (One company once tried to tell me that all they had available was a 15-passenger van!!) But if I reserve an economy car, lo and behold, they have compacts readily available (for the same price). Finally, I figured out that, at least in the locations where I typically rent, Enterprise was much less likely to engage in these tactics than the other companies, so I started reserving with Enterprise even when they weren’t the least expensive. The combination of these strategies had been working very well for me for a number of years, so it was a shock when, not just once but twice (and at two different locations), Enterprise agents gave me grief about the size of car I wanted to drive. This was also different from the experiences I had when I was younger in that the focus of the agent’s pitch was not on what would make me “more comfortable,” but on what I was competent to drive safely.

  3. I bought Weiss’ book and started it before my sister came to visit. I read that excerpt and was stunned. Being of short stature (5 ft) I have always had issues with marginality…they don’t see you, they think you are still a child even after you have been teaching for 10 yrs, but now it seems I do appear younger for my age so people think I am not even 50…so this may take a while to creep in.

    Now the competence part… I have been battling this as a woman my whole life….but I agree about blue collar workers….they accepted me as their boss faster than white collar….and I have had similar reactions when they do work for me.

    I intend to fight both of these issues tooth and nail as I have in the past and with more gusto now!

    Thanks for bringing these to light Jean….and go get ’em.

    • Jean says:

      Donna, We’ll see what ways we can find to fight the threat of marginality. My father was a labor union activist, so I was raised with a ‘don’t agonize, organize’ mentality.

  4. Jean says:

    What interesting post. I’ve been thinking about it for a couple of days, not sure what I wanted to write…still aren’t sure but I know the marginalizing happens in my life as well. Maybe that’s why it’s so much fun to go out with my Red Hat Society group. When we’re all together in our purple and red garb we turn heads, bring smiles to people’s faces and get comments from people about how they wished their moms would get involved in something fun like we’re doing. The service is even better than when I go out with my Movie and Lunch club and often to the same restaurants. How sad it is that we older women have to wear ridiculously bright and gaudy outfits and hats to get treated like something other than the furniture.

    I agree about the blue collar workers being a less patronizing and accepting than other people we meet in public. Maybe more of them have hard working mothers that they respect? Or maybe they’ve worked side by side with women long enough to see we’re not dumb? I usually tip 20% in restaurants just in case the servers think all old women aren’t worth their time because, as a group, we’re notoriously bad tippers. But I think the marginalizing of older women has more to do with how much value our society places on holding onto our looks as we age. The creams, dyes, treatments and even surgeries that make it seem like it’s wrong to associate with people with wrinkles and gray hair for fear it’s catching. LOL

    • Jean says:

      Jean, I love long, musing comments like this one — where you don’t know where you’re going when you start, but are thinking it through as you write. This was what I was always trying to get my students to do in class discussion, think aloud so that others could build on their thoughts and together we would all arrive at new insights.
      I had never thought of the Red Hat societies with their insistent visibility as a form of resistance to invisibility — but, of course, it is! This is a much more subversive form of social activity than I had been giving it credit for 🙂 .
      It’s interesting how many of us have had the experience of blue collar workers being less patronizing. Your thoughts about why this might be the case are interesting, but I think there may be more to it.
      And, of course, your last comments are a reminder of how gendered this whole process of aging is. Some wrinkles and gray hair are attractive in men, but not in women. Try to imagine a “Touch of Gray” hair coloring product for women that covers up just enough of your gray to give you a look of vitality while still leaving you enough to remind everyone of your years of experience and wisdom!

      • Jean says:

        I have to share one more thing about the Red Hat Society garb. We were walking on the street the other day and an 18 wheeler geared down to a near stop so the young driver could yell out the window: “You ladies rock!” In the book by the founder of the Red Hat Society, she was very much aware of the invisibility factor and stereotyping of older women and thus the only hard and fast rule of the organization was born. You must dress in the colors when out in public.

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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

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