Why I’m thinking about retirement at 19 years old…

“Over your lifetime, you will lose $1,200,000 in wages as a female college graduate in comparison to your male graduate peers.”

As I sat in my 8:30 a.m. class trying to process my professor’s lecture, I was jolted awake with a visceral reaction that became evident in my face as my smile sank and my posture slowly caved in. “Can this really be true?” I looked around, and even face masks couldn’t hide my fellow classmates’ reactions. A sort of dumbfounded chuckle resonated in their throats.

My professor looked out to the classroom and said, “Y’all look depressed.”

In some ways this was true. I was sad; I had been disillusioned. But as the days passed after that class, the initial pit in my stomach was just the base of an emotional rollercoaster gradually gaining momentum. It’s like that movie, “Inside Out.” Instead of a singular emotion (joy, or sadness, anger, etc.) holding the joystick to my thoughts and actions, it was a strange mix that ultimately led to a new emotion I can’t really place. Frustration? Horrified curiosity? The best way I can describe it is that this emotion took me on a rollercoaster heading down a dark tunnel of unending, twisting questions, making me queasy because I can’t answer them nor provide an outlet of relief.

“Can this really be true?” I thought.

It was a cruel awakening. I’ve lived my life optimistic about how far we’ve come and how the gender wage gap has improved since the 1950s. However, lurking underneath the closing gender wage gap is an underground cavern of injustices waiting to confront women who slip through the cracks. Or, like myself, take a class and unearth the truth. 

The day I sat in my class dumbfounded we discussed the wage gap and systemic injustices found in current government agencies that impact women. Some of you may feel uncomfortable and want to stop reading because “This raging feminist is about to go off and rant for the next 10 paragraphs.” But, I urge you to not leave too quickly. 

If you know a woman, identify as one, are dating one, or simply interact with one (I am going to answer that for you… you do), gendered oppression is a fundamental thing you should recognize and learn (not only as a good human being, but as a good friend, sibling, or significant other). Here’s the research my professor shared in class about gendered oppression: 

According to economist Evelyn Murphy in an article from the National Committee on Pay Equality, over a lifetime (47 years of full-time work) the gender wage gap amounts to a significant loss in wages for women, specifically women who have completed high school education and beyond:

  • $700,000 for a high school graduate
  • $1,200,000 for a college graduate
  • $2,000,000 for a professional school graduate.

I remembered thinking in class, “You’re telling me that as I work to repay college loans I will simultaneously be losing $1,200,000 over the next 40 years? Well, shoot… how can that be possible?” Researchers like New York University sociology professor, Paula England, have found the source of this discrepancy. 

According to England’s research, systemic discrimination seen through the wage gap is founded on two factors: devaluation and queuing. These terms pinpoint the reason the wage gap hasn’t reached equality: as women enter a sector and it becomes female-dominated, wages decrease. Women’s labor is devalued and employers’ preference for men creates a gendered labor queue.

The New York Times reported, “When women in large numbers became designers (wages fell 34 percentage points), housekeepers (wages fell 21 percentage points) and biologists (wages fell 18 percentage points).” 

Meanwhile, as other industries became male-dominated, research conveyed an opposite phenomenon. 

The same article reported, “Computer programming, for instance, used to be a relatively menial role done by women. But when male programmers began to outnumber female ones, the job began paying more and gained prestige.” 

Society likes to tell women to reach for the stars, break the glass ceiling, defy expectations, but what’s the point if I know that on the other side of the glass ceiling stand iron rod bars that systemically deter my financial freedom? 

This atmosphere of oppression or “birdcage,” in the words of feminist theorist Marilynn Frye, manifests itself perennially often in systems we least expect, like social security. Yeah, yeah, I know I won’t be getting a social security check for another 50 years, but the reality is that my social security calculation begins as soon as I get my first job out of college. Here’s a quick summary of what I learned about social security in my class: 

To be eligible for baseline retirement benefits, you generally need 10 years (40 quarters) of gainful employment. And, you need to earn at least $1,300 in a quarter for it to count as a credit.

All of this is fine and well, other than the fact that due to the wage gap my benefit won’t be as high as my male counterparts. My main issue, however, is the manner in which it records our worked years. 

The social security system benefits people who earn more. As the AARP Social Security Resource Center said “The more money you earn during your working years, the higher your benefit will be.” 

In addition to your baseline requirement of 40 quarters, the social security calculation puts an emphasis on the money you earned during your 35 highest-paid years. This means that if you worked 40 years, Social Security would calculate your highest-paid 35 years and ignore the other five. But, if you worked only 25 years, Social Security would consider those 25 years and factor in an additional 10 years as zeros

The final calculation of your benefit is an average, so the more zeros you have in your equation, the lower your benefit.

This is the source of the issue.

A vast majority of women, within their married years, leave the workforce at some point to become a stay at home mother. Stay at home mom = zeros in your social security.

COVID-19 is a new factor contributing to the number of women who have left the workplace to take on duties at home

According to the research completed by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis in 2020, despite most fathers returning to the labor force towards the end of 2020, mothers remained 2.8 percentage points below their November 2019 participation rate. 

To put this loss in perspective, this same research noted the decade-long decline in labor force participation among 25 to 54-year-olds after the Great Recession was a smaller percentage, at 2.5 percentage points (Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis).

All this information feels especially alarming given the “ring by spring” attitudes found in our student body. Getting married right after graduation is a wonderful thing to do if you’ve found your person. All the power to you! 

However, as young adults begin married life and some consider being a stay-at-home parent at age 23 (which is indeed a full-time job), one must consider its impact on our financial future. We should know that retirement benefits are calculated based on 35 years of work. We should know that it is an average, and being a stay-at-home parent reduces our benefit significantly. 

Swirling thoughts of social security, the wage gap, my own experiences detained in a birdcage left me with a new realization. My “Inside Out” moment shouldn’t have been a shock. Beyond the tinted glass that we break and on the other side of expectations we exceed, injustices are present. If we are willing to zoom out, see the big picture, ask the hard questions, then we shouldn’t be surprised when the topics of discrimination and sexism have permeated into our discussions in the classroom. 

I hope you take this crash course of a 55-minute class period as a welcome to the college GE course, Politics of Race, Class, and Gender. It has vastly changed the way I see my future. To answer my professor’s question earlier in this article, yes, I am depressed.  

However, I do not write about all these things I learned to sound the doomsday alarm or ignore the progress that has been made for gender equality. Rather, I write them because I am a young adult who has two years of college remaining until entering a competitive career and I am scared. Perhaps you are too?

I write because the truth is, my fears aren’t unfounded. It is clear even social scientists and economists have picked up on these trends. 

I have to admit, I don’t really have many words of encouragement for you. My only encouragement is that, as students, we have classes and books that drastically change the way we see the world. I hope you will also have your “Inside Out” moment and begin to ask difficult questions or even simple questions like,

Can this really be true?

That is the first step in chipping away at the cage, clearing the atmosphere of oppression, and affirming mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, girlfriends, and friends that we are valued in this society.

Written By: Lainie Alfaro