Conferences on powerful women don’t need more replication. Or powerful men for that matter. Attendance at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, is a dismal 25 percent female and 75 percent male this year — so there’s the world’s “powerful man” conference. Geez.
The oxygen of women’s conferences is well consumed by Tina Brown’s Women in the World, Goldman Sachs’s 10,000 Women, Politico’s Women Rule, and even The Atlantic’s Women of Washington. And there are lots more high-profile tributes to women who are at pinnacles of power. To be fair, each of these forums in different degrees does try to reach women who are not powerful and who with support, networking, and in some cases financial access can climb the ladder and become models for others and appear on stage at TED or Davos or Aspen.
But in America, there exists a powerful dichotomy that the most neglected, and in my view demeaned, type of woman — financially strapped yet working multiple jobs to hold the financial frame together for a household she either shares with a spouse or manages alone — turns out to be the most powerful voter. According to recent polls, particularly the AARP/Harris Poll, 95 percent of women over 50 say they are going to vote, and nearly 70 percent of female respondents are still open as to who they will pull the electoral lever for. That’s a committed swing vote. Nearly half of women, 44 percent, say they are independents — which follows national trends in that more Americans identify as political independents rather than as members of either the Republican or Democratic parties.
According to the Harris data, these 50+ women are not happy with the political climate, and their frustration churns over the high costs of health care and prescription drugs (46 percent of those sampled), the opioid epidemic (36 percent), the rapid increase in expenses with stagnant incomes (34 percent), college affordability and student debt (32 percent), and the future of Social Security (30 percent). Many 50+ parents assume the debts of their children, particularly for education, so the staggering increase in student debt hangs around the aspirations and livelihood of many age-strong Americans.
Women over 50 who live in urban areas have a more positive take on their circumstances as compared to those in rural areas and small towns. Sixty-three percent of women say that the economy “is working for them” vs. 52 percent in small towns and rural parts of the country.
Because of the current lifespan fact that women outlive men in the U.S., 81 years on average for women and 76 years of age for men, and because of the very high proclivity to vote among 50+ women, what these hard-working women want matters and has political impact. While the media may not treat them as “America’s most powerful women” at conferences because they don’t occupy board seats, or have amassed great wealth, their numbers, their resilience and their passions for improving their communities make them America’s most powerful citizens.
The great documentarian mega-producer Sheila Nevins, who led HBO’s documentary division for years and now heads the same for MTV, wrote a selection of essays that navigated her relationship with aging. The book is called “You Don’t Look Your Age … and Other Fairy Tales.” Nevins is one who would fit well in the pomp of a power woman forum, but she rejects those trappings and speaks as if she is any woman who refuses to give in to the institutionalized social degradation of being referred to as “elderly,” or another way of saying less special, vital or important to society. Nevins, like many women who persevere in their own circumstances, remains present in the day’s debates and present in her work. She’s like many 50+ women throughout America whose age and experience are strengths to be continually engaged.
Where much of this is happening is in cities where 50+ communities and their aspirations, strengths and needs are finally being woven into the fabric of what mayors and their city councils consider healthy communities. Mobility options and diversity are important for millennials — but so too for the 50+. As more young people find themselves in hybrid work experiences with gig jobs, so too do the 50+ who know that in today’s economy and given their increasing lifespan, the future of retirement for them is continuing to work.
Whether it’s retrofitting new urban infrastructure, reimagining inter-generational housing, constructing workforce development plans that take lifelong learning seriously, or looking at how to become a hotbed for new ideas and startups, many cities are embracing age-inclusive strategies. These efforts are not philanthropic; they make sense so as not to leave valuable experience, dependability and age-acquired insights on the table as cities reinvent themselves.
Some of the new frames of age-empowerment and inclusion include Boston which has renamed its “Commission on the Elderly” as the “Age Strong Commission” and coupled that with outreach programs and public education that build the 50+ community in, not leave them out. The new mayor of West Sacramento, Calif., Chris Cabaldon, has decreed that each of his city departments must develop plans that leverage the strengths of the 50+ community and find ways to make this community a target of its essential services and has actively solicited this community for ride- and bike-share mobility options. In Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser has pushed hard for affordable housing for grandparents raising grandchildren, and has also gotten businesses to pursue “certification” as age-friendly.
Mayor Betsy Price in Fort Worth, Texas, takes bike rides with her 50+ residents to promote health and community building that spans the age spectrum and pushes age-aware pedestrian safety, new intergenerational affordable housing. And Bryan Barnett, who is president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and mayor of Rochester Hills, Mich., is a leader in anticipating the deployment of autonomous vehicles and how this can be an empowerment transportation platform for the 50+ community. But smartly, Barnett has also reached out to many of the retired engineers and autoworkers who live in his community to become engaged with this generation transportation infrastructure, leveraging their experience and insights for the future.
This is a positive picture. The most powerful women of the nation are being heard and are engaged — and so too are lots of 50+ men. Cities are the hotbeds of new ideas today — and the opportunity to blend the nimble flexibility and adaptiveness of a new generation of millennials and their successors to the experience and ongoing vitality and insights of the 50+ community is a frame for strength in America’s cities. And whether Washington is aware of it or not, this bridge-building between citizens, the creation of new intergenerational compacts is taking place now and will become a major feature of the nation in future years.
Clemons is editor at large of The Hill.