by Vicki Larson
As hard as my divorce has sometimes been for my kids and me, I am thankful for the good that has come out of it.
Lately, I’m especially thankful that it happened a few years ago.
What difference does that make?
In this economic climate, plenty.
When my former husband and I divorced, I was facing a job market I hadn’t been a full-fledged member of for more than a decade. Although I worked part-time as the editor of a monthly newspaper and did some freelance writing while raising my two boys, I was a bit out of the loop. Still, I needed a full-time job — fast. So I took the first offer that came along — at a salary that was barely above the salary I’d started my journalism career at some two decades prior.
The plan was that I’d get a better job eventually, and I did.
And that’s when everything fell apart. The career I know and love, newspapers, began to abandon me, struggling with dwindling readership and competition from the Internet. And as I watched my co-workers — talented, devoted people — get axed, I started to panic and began looking for a new job. As if a dying industry wasn’t enough, my gender, my age, my marital status and even my kids were now working against me, too.
I’m still employed — for now — but I have empathy for any woman looking to find work right now because of a divorce. Because if you’ve stayed at home raising kids and haven’t kept up your skills — no matter how many book fairs you coordinated or even if you practically ran the PTA single-handedly throughout your child’s grade-school years — you’re as much of a dinosaur as last year’s MacBook.
I’m not sure if there are better or worse times to get a divorce — usually people choose that path when they just can’t make a marriage work anymore, regardless of what’s happening in the world at large. But with the economic and real estate market meltdown, if ever there was a “worse” time, this has got to be it. In fact, an article in the New York Times in December stated that with almost one in six homes worth less than the mortgage owed on it ”divorce has become more complicated and often more expensive, with lower prospects for money on the other side.”
But if you’ve already signed the papers, the picture isn’t pretty — even if you’re lucky enough to get hired. First, women get paid less than men do; women out of college make 80 percent less than their male colleagues and, 10 years later, they earn only 69 percent of what men make, according to the American Association of University Women’s latest study.
Plus you’ll most likely be facing maternal profiling — employment discrimination against a woman who has, or will have, children — and thus less likely to be hired than non-mothers with equal resumes and job experiences, and then given fewer opportunities for advancement than others.
And although 40 may be the new 30 when it comes to dating, it doesn’t quite work that way in the workplace.
The barriers to reentry into the workforce are enormous, Randy Albelda, a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, told the Boston Globe "One is deterioration of skills. I think employers are leery of people that leave the labor market. Then there's age discrimination, which I think exists."
Beyond those issues, there’s the divorce issue. According to a 2003 study by the Washington-based Institute for Women's Policy Research, divorced women suffer economically more than any other group as they age. More than 14 percent of households headed by divorced women are unable to pay bills, compared with 10 percent headed by divorced men and 8 percent headed by married couples.
In part that’s because women who opt to become stay-at-home moms suffer huge economic penalties if they divorce or separate, including loss of pension income, savings or assets, and health-care coverage, according to Albelda.
That lack of a safety cushion — only half of divorced or separated women have savings, typically about $1,600 — makes the 31 million households headed by women particularly vulnerable, according to the Federal Reserve Board's most recent survey of consumer finances.
And I am one of the vulnerable ones.
Maybe I should be panicking, but I’m not. I’m hopeful the Obama administration will help turn things around. In the meantime, I’m looking at ways to reinvent myself. And lately the romantic fantasies I had as an environmentally conscious teenager of living off the land and off the grid in the wilderness somewhere keep popping into my head. Perhaps I was on to something.