Excerpts: Chapter 1 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 14

Chapter 8

For a great many women, and especially for a great many older women, the Number poses special challenges. Alicia Mundell, who directs the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, has much to say about why women are vulnerable to impoverishment when they reach old age. The biggest determinant, she says, is whether a woman remains married. Gert's is a happy situation compared to that of many of her peers. One out of three single older women is poor or verging on it. That makes for an abundance of them: about 30 percent of American households ages sixty-five to sixty-nine consist of unmarried women, and they make up more than 60 percent of households age eighty-five and up.

Mundell reports that there are many reasons why women, even married women, must fight harder than men to avoid financial hardship. On average they are typically not paid as well, earning around 25 percent less than men over a lifetime. Because of family responsibilities, women are able to spend fewer years in the workforce, not just in their younger years when they are raising children, but later on, when they leave their jobs to care for older parents or ailing spouses. Daughters who take care of elderly parents outnumber care-giving sons by more than two to one..

Women, of course, also live longer than men, which means that whatever Numbers they have, whether they rest on savings, pensions, or Social Security, must resist the headwinds of inflation far longer. More than five times as many women as men say they worry about their lifestyle being dramatically diminished after the death of a spouse.