Category Archives: Social Studies

Speak truth to power: Declare your age

I turned 60 on July 4th.

There, I said it. Can I still write a blog about middle age?

No less an august authority than The Economist recently illuminated my dilemma in an article that argued for a new “age category”: What do we call this vital period between midlife and old age? I feel less affinity with a retiree of 75 than I do with a 40-year-old just entering middle age. Yet I am past those years of raising children, long commutes, holding an all-consuming job that could support a family and wearing stress like a badge for my achievements.

I still work. I exercise daily. I am engaged in life. I have good friends. At 60, I am not young anymore, but I am not old yet, either. What do I call this stage of life? Am I a “tweener”?

“Branding an age category might sound like a frivolous exercise,” says The Economist article, published two days after I tumbled out of middle age. “But life stages are primarily social constructs, and history shows that their emergence can trigger deep changes in attitude.”60 is classic

That explains why I have decided to be open about my age, despite the risks to my employability. I want to debunk the idea that women lose value as we grow older, which is true only in a society that prizes us primarily for reproduction. In fact, we have more time and far more perspective once we have made it through the child-rearing years.

Gloria Steinem’s famous rejoinder to an intended compliment on her 40th birthday, “You don’t look 40,” seems apropos: “This is what 40 looks like.”

For me, this is how 60 looks and feels:

  • wrinkled skin;
  • more need for sleep;
  • a lean body that craves yoga but can no longer sustain a runner’s 9-minute mile;
  • a determination to volunteer because I have less time to change the world (but still enough ego to believe I can make a difference);
  • more patience and self-acceptance;
  • more gratitude and humility;
  • and, thank goodness, still much to learn.

A woman can find freedom when she refuses to lie about her age, when she finds the gumption to declare her truth and share her story.

Wisdom from Bruce Willis

“Most of us have an inner age,” wrote the late author and gay-rights activist Robert Levithan in his book The New 60 (2012).

When I was in my mid-40s, working at a publishing company in downtown Minneapolis, I posted a quote in my cubicle from a Vanity Fair profile of Bruce Willis: “I see the lines on my face, but I don’t feel the weight on my shoulders. In my heart, I’m still 27,” he said.

MotownI could say I still feel young, that I take pride in keeping fit. I preen a bit when friends tell me I don’t look 60 and feel relieved when some commentator declares 60 as the new 40. What is all that, however, but a denial of the inevitable and a denigration of the gifts that come with age?

Ricka Kohnstamm calls these the wisdom years. “Age is totally an asset,” says Kohnstamm, who will turn 61 in August. A former partner with her husband, Josh, in Kohnstamm Communications, she recently earned a master’s degree in integrative health and well-being coaching.

“I bring a whole different set of experiences,” explains Kohnstamm, who is about to launch her own business, ALIGN Whole Health Coaching. “Many of us at 60 have experienced a lot: disappointments, joys, dreams that may not happen, transitions, deaths and losses.”

Over coffee, I tell Kohnstamm that I did not expect to feel so much uncertainty at 60. Her laughter breaks my fearful, reflective mood. “I want uncertainty!” she declares. “We have to learn to ride that wave.”

The secret? Keep learning

Loss can teach us lessons. Here is what the loss of youth is teaching me.

Being 60 means becoming acutely aware of time — in work, in relationships, in how I spend my days. I no longer have time to waste, and I use it wisely.

Being 60 means becoming more deliberate. I love to work and expect to hold some sort of part-time job for decades, but I likely am entering the final stage of my career. That makes me more careful than I was in my 20s and 30s, when I changed jobs too quickly, loving the energy of the chase, always seeking the next challenge and the thrill of something new.

Being 60 means accepting other people’s choices even when I think they’re wrong (a sentence that my husband will love to read).

Being 60 means breaking free of the façade. I look at women wearing layers of makeup and hobbling around on high heels, and I want to ask why they invest in their own subjugation. I dress up when circumstances warrant and relish the attention it grants me, but I don’t fool myself into believing that those appreciative glances define my worth. “Elegance attracted me,” says the protagonist in Zadie Smith’s novel Swing Time (2016). “I liked the way it hid pain.”

Being 60 means becoming willing to share that pain, to risk being real, and that requires the courageous work of being vulnerable. “The majority of people, if they’re awake, have pretty complicated lives,” says Kohnstamm. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to pretend we didn’t?”

Hillary was too perfect in an imperfect race

I cast my vote on Tuesday, November 8, with tears in my eyes, a bounce in my step and a broad smile cracking my aging face.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, for me, was no compromise candidate. She was “amply qualified” to be president, as the Washington Post and many other old-media outlets declared. I supported her over Barack Obama in 2008. I supported her over Bernie Sanders in 2016. Turns out, she was the right woman at the wrong time.hillary_mic

Weeks later, her stunning loss is doubly difficult. Our country fell back into the dark reaches of protectionism and fear with the ascension of “the Donald” as our president. But I also can’t shake the reality, the awakening, that Hillary brought this loss upon herself.

Consider this less a political analysis than a primer for women well into middle age who need to step up, speak up and shake up a system that continues to marginalize and overlook us, both in politics and at work.

Lesson 1: Be real.

Bernie Sanders was wrong when he told Clinton, in October 2015, that “the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.” Instead of smiling and nodding and declaring, “Me, too,” Hillary needed to explain.

Why did she set up a private email server as secretary of state? Why did she delete 30,000 messages that she deemed to be private? Nothing is private in the digital hemisphere, and this bright woman is smart enough to know that.

Why did she not explain the logic behind the “zone of privacy” that she first made public back in 1994? The suspicions about her then never entirely were erased and may have obliterated her once-promising campaign.

A communications professional and the daughter of a onetime politician, I badly wanted to get inside the Clinton war room and advise her to drop the façade. To be real! (It’s advice that a female vice president once gave me, in commenting about my outsize work ethic: “You need to let your direct reports see that you are human, Amy.”)

“I made a mistake” with the emails wasn’t good enough, not even (or especially) for this diehard supporter. I wanted to know why. I wanted to understand her better. “That would require Hillary to look inside herself,” a friend and Clinton supporter told me days before the election.

Lesson 2: Be bold.

Perfectionism is the self-defeating disease of too many girls and women — evidenced by our obsession with looks and weight, our cautious tendency to play by the rules, our earnest efforts to be the hardest working participants in any venue, from the classroom to the boardroom.

Damned if the astonishingly accomplished Hillary Rodham Clinton — the woman who came closest to breaking the nation’s highest, hardest glass ceiling — isn’t hobbled by perfectionism, too. It may have cost the race for this candidate who can’t seem to be herself in public.

Straight talk, plainly and imperfectly delivered, played well in this election cycle. Hillary — ever the student — instead favored nuance and the latest talking points from her data-driven campaign. “She’s a policy wonk, and I like that because I’m a scientist,” a neighbor said the day after the election. “But she isn’t a politician.” She didn’t have to be.

  • When Trump paraded Bill’s former female conquests before a national audience at the second debate (two days after his own lewd behavior was revealed), Hillary could have squared her shoulders and declared that she was no more responsible for Bill’s behavior than Melania was for Donald’s.
  • When Sanders hammered on the Goldman Sachs speeches, which later revealed her reasoned preference for free trade, she could have explained global markets in terms that the average worker would understand.
  • If coal jobs and auto manufacturing are never coming back, she could have won over millennial voters (and scientists, like my neighbor) by talking about the environmental and economic benefits of wind energy, solar power and mass transit.

She could have helped us as Americans see beyond ourselves and come together as a nation for our common good.

Lesson 3: Be yourself.

Reportedly a charming and plain-spoken woman in private, Hillary could have risked speaking the bold, brazen truth in this “wild west” race. If it cost her the election, at least her supporters would have felt more pride in her defeat. At least then, I could have squared my own shoulders and declared: She lost, but she did not fail.

Too often, I felt Clinton was running for president rather than telling me how she would serve. “Make America Great Again” proved to be an irresistible tagline, and she didn’t articulate what she stood for in the face of it.

I supported Hillary, who is 10 years older than I am, for her lifetime of consistent service to women’s rights. I wanted her to play the woman card in 2008 — when instead she got caught explaining her 2002 Senate vote to approve the Iraq war.

Then and now, I wanted her to run as who and what she was: a path-breaking woman who naturally has been a target since her days at Wellesley College. I wanted her to talk about her evolution in the 1960s from a so-called Goldwater girl to a liberal activist. I wanted her, as an attorney, to talk about this president’s potential to appoint two to three justices to the U.S. Supreme Court and about the reality of what life will become — for poor women, for rural women — if women’s reproductive rights get reversed.

Instead, in long discussions with my Bernie Sanders–supporting sons, I came to wonder if Hillary would say anything to get elected.

And so, the final lesson: Be of service. Action and involvement are the only options left for those of us who believed in a future that did not come to pass. Hillary will go down in history as a courageous woman whose caution overrode her conviction, who — in the face of bigotry and misogyny — consulted her poll numbers and played it way too safe.

Living the daily grind of the working poor

Two years ago, over my husband’s objections, we became a one-vehicle household when I sold my car.

It was a financial decision, in part. I had recently downsized out of management and was earning significantly less. But it was also a lifestyle choice. After years of long-distance commuting, I re-established our household in a bus- and pedestrian-friendly neighborhood where I can walk to work.

Choice is the operative word in that scenario. When I observe that I’m among the few obviously professional workers — and Caucasians — on inner-city buses or trains, I don’t often acknowledge that for me this is a choice. Even the pay cut, though a blow to both my pocketbook and my ego, was made possible through income from rental properties that my family owns.

For the working poor, however, a reliance on sometimes unreliable mass transit — as well as food insecurity, substandard housing, or lack of affordable child care and health care — means the opposite of choice. “It is about economics,” says Gennae Falconer, director of community engagement at the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches.Cropped_Gennae

“I have a full-time job,” she explains. “I have parents who could bail me out. Without harm to them, they could support me. These families have grandparents who can’t watch the kids because they are working. It’s inter-generational poverty.”

An exercise in living poor

I recently had the opportunity through Leadership Saint Paul to be part of a workshop that Falconer runs called “Face the Facts: Understanding Poverty.” Although the exercise has the feel of a board game, there is nothing enjoyable about it at all.

Your challenge is to make it through a month in the city on a very limited budget, the instructions read. You will need to find housing, daycare, transportation and health insurance. In addition, you will need to pay for household expenses, food, clothing and entertainment.

My team’s choices got more difficult as we inched closer and closer to spending down the $3,400 per month that “Ted” and “Alice,” our working-poor parents, brought home. We started with housing, which we deemed the highest need for this five-person family.

Affordable housing means you are spending less than 30% on housing costs. In 2015, over 37% of Hennepin County residents paid more than 30% of their income for housing.

Given choices that included an affordable “rundown quad-plex” on a busy street where “loud fights and crime are common” and “a spacious duplex” close to a park and bus lines that cost $280 a month more than we were supposed to spend on housing, we opted for the three-bedroom duplex. Our rationale: free entertainment in the park.

We chose not to give this family a car, which meant we had to find daycare for the 2- and the 4-year-old on a bus line or close to home. Our decisions were starting to involve compromise:

  • The most affordable, high-quality child-care option, with a curriculum that focuses on healthful eating and self-esteem, looked ideal — but was a 40-minute commute by bus.
  • The other affordable option had a “frazzled and forgetful” owner who also cares for her aging mother. Plus, a child was injured there recently in the home’s unfinished basement.
  • The pricier option had a “sparse” supply of toys and limited activities, and it cost $160 a month more (remember, we already had overspent on housing, and we hadn’t yet factored in clothing and food).

“As you go into the exercise, you start to physically feel some of the stress,” Falconer says. “Sometimes, the only financial choice is to have the neighbor who smokes all day watch the kids, even though she lets them watch too much TV. As a society, we vilify the parents who will do that. But this is the best choice available.”

In the end, our family had spent $750 more than its monthly budget. The choices we made — to buy health insurance for the children, to enroll the mother in her 401(k) plan at work, to buy a share in the neighborhood community garden — reflected the circumstances in which we all were raised.

“Early on, there’s often not a lot of discussion about these choices,” says Falconer. “Participants are working on what is culturally ingrained: ‘This is what you do. This is how people live.’”

How could we deny “Alice,” the mom, the chance to attend her father’s funeral in Chicago? (None of us on the team works in an hourly-wage job where such a choice would entail lost wages.) How could we keep Valerie, the eldest child, from playing a sport or taking a field trip at school? (None of us had been denied those opportunities.)

Days later, Falconer and I discussed how she has seen the exercise affect participants.

This exercise was billed to our group as a “poverty simulation.” I honestly didn’t know what to expect.

“We try not to call it a poverty simulation, because that’s not fair to those who experience real poverty. We call it by its full name — Face the Facts: Understanding Poverty — and we define it as a simulation exercise to experience what life is like for the working poor.

“The exercise is specific to that group of people. They don’t make enough to cover living expenses, but they earn too much to qualify for state and federal aid.”

Who is your audience?

“We’re largely working with people who come from a privileged background and may not understand the complexities. They may believe that poverty is a choice driven by the person experiencing it. We’re hoping to show people that poverty is driven by economics.

“That’s why we call these poverty and privilege trainings. In our experience of working with white, middle- to upper-middle-class people — and I am one of them — we see that people tend to feel either guilty or defensive. And that doesn’t get us anywhere. We can’t sit in that space.

“If people act out of guilt, they give money. That’s fine, but it’s not working toward justice. If you act out of defensiveness, you become fearful and want to hold on to what you have.”

I’m on a committee at work that is examining how to move from employee volunteerism to true engagement with the community. How do you move people from throwing money at the problem to changing the system that enables poverty?

“People gravitate toward service and acts of charity because it’s on their terms. You get to decide how you do it, and it’s easier to do. Yes, you did something good: You painted a house; you stocked a food shelf.

“But if you’re doing the work of justice, it is going to take some personal sacrifice. You may make less money, because if we’re going to pay everyone an equitable wage, then the person who is white or male won’t automatically make more money. The sacrifice will come from those who have the most.

“That’s hard, and it creates fear. People think, ‘I’m going to be without.’ We live with such a notion of scarcity: ‘If we pay people more, I will have less.’ But we have enough in this country. We just don’t allocate it right. We don’t share enough.

“There has to be give and take among all community members to bring everybody up. Paul Wellstone said: We all do better when we all do better. Goodness begets other goodness.”

Although my team wanted to do well by this family, we also concluded that with low-skilled jobs and no apparent education, the parents should never have had children — or at least had fewer children. There’s another judgment against the working poor.

“You see that as the exercise progresses. Ted smokes, and for $75 he can keep smoking that month, or for $175 he can get the cessation gum. People assume you can just quit. But less than 1 percent of people who quit smoking cold turkey are successful within the year.

“There’s a mental health factor for the working poor. Smoking or eating junk food gives you a release. They don’t have time to sit in a therapist’s office for an hour. Again, poverty is about dollars and economics. It’s not just choices people make.”

It seems that people have grown both more rich and more poor since I was a kid. My family had one television and one car until I was 10 years old. Our house had no air conditioning; my mom hung laundry outside to dry. And my father was an attorney. We considered ourselves middle class.

“And we saw the privileges of the middle class as our right! I grew up in St. Cloud. I knew people at my school who were poor. You heard rumors. You could tell by the way they dressed. But all of those people had houses, had food, had a way to get to school. That’s not the way things are anymore.

“When homeless shelters came about in the 1980s, they were supposed to be a temporary fix. Federal poverty guidelines determine whether a person or a family is eligible for benefits, but those benefits were meant to be an emergency stopgap. Because the disparity between the rich and the poor keeps growing, it takes an enormous amount of money to raise yourself into a higher class. You remain dependent on the system.”

What are the next steps, for those of us who participated in this exercise?

“Our Urban Immersion Service Retreats focus on education, advocacy and service. Those programs help all of us understand that people who want to help — to be part of equity and change — can’t just ‘jump to justice’ without the underlying background. We have to move people along that continuum.”

To learn more, or to lease the “Face the Facts: Understanding Poverty” kit, contact Gennae Falconer at the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches: 612-276-1564 or