Intersectionality and longevity: who gets to live the longest, healthiest lives?

longevity, diversity, and intersectionality

Intersectionality is a term that describes the overlapping inequalities many of us face as women, as people of color, as older adults, as members of the LGBTQ+ community, as those who are differently abled. The lived experience of a Black woman, for example, is different than that of a Caucasian woman or a Black man. And the experience of a Black woman over 65 is different yet again – she faces an additional “layer” of inequality. 

Read more: What is intersectionality and why is it important? 

Intersectionality considers each of us as having a combination of social identities that impact the opportunities available to us, the power we hold, and the discrimination and oppression we may face.  

Most people probably don’t think of intersectionality in the context of aging, but age discrimination is real, and intersected with racism, sexism, classism or homophobia, it makes attaining equality that much harder. 

Let’s take the example of Tessa. Tess is a 50-year-old woman who works full-time outside the home. Based on this information alone, we can make several assumptions: 

  • First, as a woman, she may have worked for years earning lower wages than her male counterparts, regardless of her field.  
  • Secondly, Tessa may have unique personal and professional experiences with gender discrimination, in both employment-based settings and social settings.  
  • Third, she is middle-aged and grew up at a specific time in history, resulting in generational experiences and norms that influence her perspective.  
  • Finally, as a middle-aged woman, she is not considered to be at the peak years of her physical beauty, and may face feelings of invisibility, which is something that isn’t faced by men of this same age. 

Tessa’s experiences with opportunity, discrimination, and power are influenced by her social identities.  The accumulation of our social identities (age, race, gender, sexual orientation and identity, socioeconomic status, education, marital status, etc.) influence our experiences across our lifespans. We can’t look at each of the identities as independent of one another, but rather as a combination of intersecting identities. For instance, if Tessa is Caucasian, she will have a very different lived experience than if she is Black. As a woman, she would face sexism, but as a Black woman, she would experience both sexism and racism.  

Being a woman can mean less money in retirement

According to the National Partnership for Women & Families, which studies women’s wages, Tessa’s average earnings as a Caucasian woman is 79 cents for every dollar paid to a Caucasian, non-Hispanic man. If Tessa is Black, however, that falls to just 63 cents. 

Read more: Intersectionality in the workplace 

As a result of this pay disparity, over her lifetime, Tessa will have paid less into Social Security, even if she worked without taking a break to care for children or aging/disabled family members. So when it comes time for her to retire, she may not have the resources to be able to travel, take classes, modify her home to meet her needs as she ages, or even afford quality health care. 

Marital status is another social identity. 

If Tessa is single, she won’t have a spouse’s Social Security to rely on, making her financial status in older age more tenuous than if she were married; married women can rely on Social Security benefits that are based on their spouse’s earnings. Since White men earn more than men of other racial groups, according to the Federal Interagency Forum, women who are married to Caucasian men (often Caucasian women) are less likely than other women to live in poverty.  

By now, you probably get the picture.

We can keep adding social identities in our consideration of intersectionality’s impact on longevity.  Calasanti and Giles, who study this subject, found that one social identity isn’t more important than others; rather, the identities held by each person are experienced collectively, making no one experience precisely the same. 

Furthermore, people don’t stop experiencing these identities as they get older. Instead, their cumulative impact becomes more apparent, and aging itself is added as a social identity – and an additional source of social disadvantage. 

More resources on intersectionality 

Beginning February 17, 2021, join us for a three-part series workshop entitled, “From Diversity to Intersectionality: Leading Change from Within”, where Dr. Gina Messina will explore how to better understand one’s identity and how our experiences impact the ways we engage with others. 

About Stacey O’Brien

Stacey teaches the Navigating the Maze of Aging Policies, Programs, and Supports course in our Longevity Wellness professional development series. She is a licensed independent social worker with a passion for improving the lives of older adults. Her experience includes inpatient medical, psychiatric, and pediatric social work and long-term care. Before joining Ursuline College, she was the Executive Director of the Community Partnership on Aging. She is a board member for Senior Transportation Connection and the Center for Community Solutions’ Council on Older Persons. Stacey has a master’s degree in the Science of Social Administration from Case Western Reserve University. 

Connect with Stacey.

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