Blue Jasmine, Blanchett and bag lady fear

Lisa Schwarzbaum
Film critic Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote an insightful article, "The Fear That Dare Not Speak Its Name" in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, about her dread of ending up on the streets, penniless, muttering– an invisible, unloved elder.

Is that your fear, too? You would not be alone. 

Schwarzbaum includes these stats:
"...In March, a 2013 survey on women, money and power, issued by the Allianz Life Insurance Company of North America, made headlines with its findings that nearly half of all American women fear becoming bag ladies –yes, the survey actually used that phrase–including 27 percent with household earnings of more than $200,000 a year. And the worry is widespread: 56 percent among single women, 54 percent divorced, 47 percent widowed and 43 percent married."

Schwarzbaum discusses Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine", which I saw. I thought the film landed a few good jabs about status and culture, but lacked subtlety. I mean, when Alec Baldwin enters as the swindler/philanderer husband, his trademarked smirky charm reeking like Italian aftershave, what do you think is going to happen? 

And you can never quite forget that that's Cate Blanchett guzzling Stoly and Xanax; women who look like her–and are not even close to old age–generally get second acts.  

Allen's broadly-drawn Jasmine, unhinged in Hermès, is compelling but uncommon; most days, I pass women picking through discards in the market bins, scavenging recyclables, not a Kelly bag in sight.

Schwarzbaum's article segues into a discussion of who might make the definitive bag-lady film; the film critic in her overcomes the social critic.  

In real life, I'm a harpy with young women. I have a bias toward education that yields a way to make a living for yourself. The pursuit of edifying but non-remunerative subjects is, for me, either your minor, an area for self-study or a good way to spend a sizeable inheritance. "Get someting under yourself, girl" is my mantra.

With women in co-habition situations, I entreat them (this usually involves a glass or two of wine) to know the family law for their jurisdiction. Should they end, common-law unions distribute assets differently than marriage, even if my friend in love thinks "it's the same thing".

Single mature women face pointed questions if they float plans for major career change ("Way less money but so fulfilling!"), and I view cashing in registered retirement savings in order to fund a trip to Maui with the same level of horror as I'd accord a child abduction.
The best way to destitution-proof one's life is for a woman to equip herself to earn a living and then apply the basics of financial management. 

Beyond that, she should work on social change projects (not only vote), in areas she cares about, for example, health care, social security and labour law. (The growing precarity of employment, with its "freelance gigs and short-term work" seems automatically accepted by Schwarzbaum as the new normal.) 

And despite the issues with charities, let's support the responsible agencies who help the indigent–put our arms around women struggling to survive. 

Maybe "Blue Jasmine" will nudge a few complacent persons, but I think most of us know the score: financial security is a much harder game as the years roll by.

What do you think women need to do to bag-proof ourselves?


une femme said…
I don't know that anyone can ever 100% "bag proof" themselves (in this country, a catastrophic or chronic illness can still decimate a lifetime's savings) but ever since seeing my mother unable to provide for herself financially after my parents divorce, I've been an unapologetic advocate of female financial independence. I'm feeling the pull toward retirement myself (job just keeps getting more demanding) but am trying to hang in there until my pension kicks in (another 5.5 years). Our bigger worry is our son...he'll need care for the rest of his life, and even as much as we save for him it would never be enough to completely cover a lifetime of care. With all the bleating about cutting Social Security, Medicare and other social programs that he'll need once we're gone to supplement his Special Needs Trust, we sometimes have very Dickensian nightmares.
Lane said…
You've written beautifully and sensibly about such an important topic. Reading LS's article on Sunday called to mind so many women in my practice who have health problems related to fear of or actual financial insecurity. I laugh when I hear government planners expecting the retirement age to rise; companies are shedding women ( and men) older than 55-60 as fast as they can, so I'm not sure where these older people are supposed to work.

The US healthcare situation: well, we all know this is the second most common cause of bankruptcy here. I hope the new structure will help with some of this, but it does not address excess cost.

Young women need all the advice we can give them, speaking as mum to 2 young ladies in their 20's. They managed to get the no credit card balance,ever, lesson in college, but real life is,well, expensive. They both have IRA's started when they had teen jobs and can see how much they--painlessly--accumulated. But I worry about their futures more than I do mine.
LauraH said…
Totally agree with everything you've said about getting the skills to support yourself for a lifetime. In this world, financial independence is a must for women.

Unfortunately, a decent income isn't enough. Women also need to put in the time and effort to figure out how to manage and invest their money. I started putting away money in an RSP (Retirement Savings Plan) in my 20s and am so thankful I did.

Maybe I'm just naturally financially oriented but I'm amazed and worried by the number of women who don't seem interested in the most basic financial management information such as what interest rate their credit card charges or if they are paying a fee for their bank account. Educating yourself about money is a survival skill, how do we get this across when so many find it boring and dull or too confusing.

And, of course we're incredibly fortunate to have medicare here in Canada.
Madame Là-bas said…
Financial independence and money management are important for women. In Canada, we do have Pharmacare and some housing alternatives. Intermediate Care and Extended Care are government supported in B.C. and the elderly pay a percentage of their income up to $2800 per month. My father died earlier this year and my mother was overwhelmed because dad had always done the money. Learning at 81 is possible but difficult. We all need to understand how our money is spent.
This comment has been removed by the author.
Interesting post - I think financial independence is a good place to start, though not a guarantee. In these straitened economic times, money/job security/the future are a massive worry. Working as a freelancer, I find people increasingly expect me to do twice the amount of work for the same fee, or to work for nothing.
LPC said…
As a congenital optimist, I like to balance being sensible without going all the way to dour. I also have a carpe diem mentality, a bit. But my background is what it is, so I'm probably not terribly useful in this discussion.
Duchesse said…
Pseu: It seems as if advocacy and activism will be high on the list of your activities inretirement if not before.

Lane: Hoping that the new US healthcare structure is adopted by the vast majority of the currently uninsure. I have lived in both systems and am disturbed by the deliberate misinformation out there.

LauraH: There have been some good initiatives to educate young people (not just women) via secondary school curriculum. And then Paris Hilton comes along.

In order to drive change, I find it useful to make a distinction between "fortune" and political policy. Canada's health care system is the result of political policy beginning in 1940s, and with some changes, contining to the present. The result is that we feel fortunate, and despite that fortune must continually asking ourselves what we can continue to pay for.

Louise; What else can you do?

I've worked for 40 years with people with all sorts of degrees, some a natural match for a job, others with very odd backgrounds. It is not all about the degree; the person's work ethic, personality, focus and determination have a great deal to do with finding the right job.
Duchesse said…
LPC: It's easier for some personality types to go to a doomsday scenario than others. Having read your blog, I have the impression you would care about women with fewer resources than yourself. You have seemed to me to have equanimity but also lots of heart.
Anonymous said…
Marvellous post, I lay awake just last night worrying about "the future" I was a bit of a dodo at school ( by that I mean UK school which ends at 16/17) and have no education at all, it is my one big regret, I grew up with elderly parents (My siblings are 20 years older) and my job from an early age was to help keep my dad alive, he had dreadful ill health from war injuries, we had several machines at home which helped to keep him alive and he would collapse and almost die three or four times a year, mum would go to pieces and it was my job to put him into the recovery position, call the ambulance and be with him and settle mum from the age of 9.
Today I am very anxious and stressed but then I have been for 40 odd years really.
I would love to be able to go back and find out what I was supposed to be, instead I a stuck in mind numbing dead end part time jobs.
Work hard, save money and be mindful of expenditures.
I see women digging in the waste receptacles for bottles and surprisingly they are not poorly dressed. It does give one an opportunity to pause for thought.
Nothing is ever certain and I think we could all be at risk if things went awry. I feel this even more so since retiring. I have become much more frugal and think twice now before purchasing the non essentials.
Anonymous said…
Oh gosh, what a timely post. And so guilty as charged! 5 years ago I decided I wanted to segue out of a lucrative freelance career in advertising production and find something more 'meaningful.' I'd always been a decent writer and thought writing could provide me with a good income. But I didn't have portfolio so I took very low-paying Craig's List projects which haven't really gone anywhere. Going back to my old career is really not an option so am now spinning my wheels a bit. I have held on to one advertising client (freelance) which has remained my bread and butter. That gig will be up in the next year or two so I really have to get serious. Thinking of getting a technical writing certificate. Meaningful has been put to bed!

I agree that you can't completely fool-proof yourself against poverty. Good financial management and living below your means - something I've embraced only in the last 5 or 6 years - are key. Also, being open to educating yourself for the jobs that DO exist.

Looking around me in Vancouver, one thing I find quite horrifying is the huge mortgages that people are taking on. I bought a condo a number of years ago that I could afford and I've almost paid it off. People are not looking at what they can afford long term, they're looking at the best house the bank will finance for them. So many 40-somethings with $400k mortgages for homes bought at the top of the market and the only real collateral being their precarious jobs. Will not end well.

Really enjoy your blog!
Chicatanyage said…
I definitely had severe "bag lady syndrome" in my 40s and 50s. I used to wake up at 3.00 in the morning in a cold sweat. However I started with very little formal education retrained and build a successful career at the same time as bringing up 2 teenage children on my own. I am now remarried and life is much easier. However I do worry about the next generation, both my children have good educations and qualifications yet are struggling to bring up families and make ends meet let alone save for the future. I currently receive a full UK state pension and if I had to live on that alone I am not sure how I would manage. I don't see how we can rely on the state to look after us with an ageing population the sums just don't add up. Things do chance and I remain internally optimistic.
Judy T said…
Kathleen I must say you are truly a clear thinker with a lot of wisdom to share. Rare!
Duchesse said…
Bourbon: I'm not sure how the very serious responsibilities you faced so young sidetracked your education, but what is evident are your natural gifts, not diminished by lack of formal exposure (or perhaps held intact by that circumstance).

Anonymous: Jobs exist. They do not, however, exist to delight and amaze us; it is a remarkable career that achieves that level, year in an out. I have a rather utilitarian view of life. So for you, big hug and a bound set of Suze Orman ;)

Chicatanyage: Pensions everywhere are under attack. Expect to see return of multigenerational housing- not just the young adult living with parent, but parents bunking in with adult children.

Judy: Hey, we saw that movie together! MIss you.

Araminta said…
You are living in Montreal so you know how many people in Quebec are living "common-law". So many of them are unaware that, except for child support, the law in Quebec gives NO protection to either partner in the case of a break up. If you are not married or in a formal civil union you have no financial rights to a division of family assets. So often (though not always) it is the woman who is disadvantaged here. It astonishes me how many people here are unaware of how vulnerable they are in such cases.
Susan Partlan said…
You already know my story so I won't repeat it. I worry about young women very much. Actually I worry about everyone which is a big part of the reason why I gave up the financial consulting business. It was depressing, especially around the time of the crisis. What I like to stress is that jobs are uncertain. You might lose your job or have to stop working for many reasons. Saving aggressively from a young age to build capital is the best way I know to protect yourself against uncertainty, even if as others have noted it is not a guarantee.
Susan Partlan said…
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Duchesse said…
Araminta: Here is an excellent summary of the rights in Québec for common-law partners:

The rights of the partner vary by province; I have found a number of very well-written guides posted on the internet. PEI's is especially through:

Susan: There are levels of bad-news scenarios. I'm grateful that I have seen enough friends and acquaintances bounce up and down a few times, to witness their resilience and resolve. The stores that came out of the last recession, especially for older workers, are especially chilling.
Here is an article (in French) from La Presse, a major Montréal daily, about the growing number of itinerant baby-boomers (who had worked for decades):

Susan P, people who work freelance often don't have the means to "save aggressively", whatever our age.

Another problem,of course is structural, with needs for a free-standing single-family home and a car, as many if not most places in North America don't provide more economical and ecological alternatives.

Technically, unions libres in Québec are not "common law", as we don't have common law but French-based civil law. Criminal law is British-based.
Anonymous said…
I think about this almost daily. This is why I read everything I can on personal finance. When I think my husband and I only have 15 years left before retirement I become anxious. Added to that is the thought of at least partially funding our daughter's college education when she starts in 3 yrs. I am glad though that I decided to go back to school at age 43 and that my daughter was witness to it. Without higher education you make roughly half of what someone with a college degree makes and are the first one to be layed off/fired from a job. You just have to make sure your choice of study is a useful one and where there is demand (science, math, health industries especially).
Anonymous said…
Thank you for breaking up my wardrobe analyses blog hopping! I find I spend too much time thinking about clothes I want to buy. You've brought me back down to more important things. My slow cooker is cooking our dinner right now using much less energy than the stove would, my ceiling fan is on instead of the air conditioning, I currently have a load of laundry in the washer being washed with cold water rather than heated, and when they are washed I will hang them to dry instead of using the dryer. I also make it a point to purchase toiletries, makeup, and other household items by buying the cheapest item that does the job well enough. I save money where I can, every bit adds up! Don't forget about investing, it is very important.
Anonymous said…
Important topic, and one that resonates with me. My mom always worked, although part time (since having kids) but she always taught me to be independent and not have to "take crap from any man". So I went to college, and for the most part was able to get good jobs (business major).

My husband & I both started out with not much beyond an education, but we were smart AND lucky, so now at 56 I am retired and pretty well set for the future, barring worldwide economic collapse! We are putting two girls through college; one is a physics major, one is chemistry. I told them they could not major in anything like Women's Studies, which is a fine subject but what on earth job can you get with it, other than to teach it? Hopeful that both will get decent jobs, because they've also been taught to be financially independent (marry someone because you want to, not because you have to).

Since I'm retired, no longer an elder-caretaker, and just this month an empty-nester, I checked out a volunteer opportunity just today. It's an organization called Dress For Success, which provides interview-appropriate suits for unemployed women. I toured the facility today (after donating several items of clothing). Women referred to the program come in and "shop" the donated items, choosing an interview suit, blouse, shoes, etc. When they get a job, they can come back for a second suit. The organization also offers counseling on interview skills, health and fitness, and financial literacy. As a fashion fan AND an MBA, I am going to volunteer to help the clients select outfits as well as to help with the financial literacy training. If you are interested in maybe volunteering, i know there are branches of this group in several cities.

---Jill Ann
Duchesse said…
lagatta: The Chambre des notaires du Québec (to which I referred in my comment to Araminta) writes, "Common law unions, also known as de facto unions..." and titles its document, "Living in a Common Law Union".

Anon@7:02: I faced a son's annoyance when I refused to fund a major that has been proven questionable as an entrée to employment. (Any anthro majors out there, beat me up now.) The field he chose is a cousin, but leads to better employment prospects, and he loves it.

Anon@7:20: Impressive! And just so you feel fine about checking out fashion blogs: building your eye will help you avoid costly mistakes :)

Jill Ann: The word 'empowerment' has been overused, but truly I see you and your husband are empowering your daughters. And thanks for the mention of Dress for Success. I have contributed to a similar organization here for immigrant women. Good cause and one day you may see a woman at her job in your suit or briefcase!

That is interesting, Duchesse, I suppose that translation was chosen as it was more understandable to anglophone readers than "de facto union" (union de fait).
Anonymous said…
I submit that it's not just what you study but how you adapt what you learn to meet your need for employment. I took women's studies and sociology for 4 years and now have a satisfying and financially-rewarding position with an internationally-recognized charity. It took a few years to find this path but now it's working out very well.
Duchesse said…
Anon@10:35: Glad it's working out for you.
Anonymous said…
Duchesse, ah I think just the stress I was under growing and also, my parents had no time to think about helping me find my way, i was 'brought up to get married." Further education was never even considered at home, it was thought of as a waste. So 17th century!
materfamilias said…
I have a slightly different perspective, given that I make my living on teaching for that first, "impractical" degree. I have two daughters who are quite well employed, pensions, benefits, etc. with a Humanities degree -- one used it as a base for a Master's in Library/Information studies; the other has taken Insurance Professional courses continually for years, constantly adding new certificates and upgrades. (a 3rd daughter went the practical route with a Red Seal in cooking, then back to school to certify as a Registered Massage Therapist). I think a mindset of paying one's own way, budgeting forward, etc. has to come before the skillset, quite honestly, and we worked from early days to help our kids think about money. Personally, I believe the Humanities degrees give a broad view of the world that helps people learn to look around, to be aware -- and my daughters have learned that constant learning and adaptation is a must in today's economic climate.
But that quibble doesn't mean I don't applaud much of what you say here -- and the comments once again constitute a great conversation about an important topic. Thanks!
Duchesse said…
materfamilias: I do not consider a Humanities degree one of those less-utilitarian ones. I do, however, think it needs to be buttressed with courses such as your daughter took, unless one is heading out on the entrepreneurial path, as there is now so much competition for jobs.

For many years, I worked with managers of a large book and music retailer. Store managers would joke about their useless degrees, but what was no joke was the debt they were working to clear.
materfamilias said…
Thanks for that clarificaton, K. I should have known. . .
My daughters (and my son) came out of their degrees with very little, if any, debt. We covered tuition OR helped with living costs and they contributed by working part-time, minimized costs (most of them, for some/most of their courses) by going to our local Uni (where I teach) so they could live at home. In itself, I think that by clearly communicating our fear/abhorrence of Student Debt probably set some pretty good life patterns. I know some have no choice, but I suspect more have choices they haven't fully considered. . . .
materfamilias said…
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Susan Partlan said…
lagatta à montréal, I freelanced from 1984-1992 and was able to aggressively save during those years. However, I was sharing housing and grocery costs with my fully employed husband and we owned very little in the way of personal possessions. It can be really hard to save if you don't have someone to share housing and food expenses with you.
Duchesse said…
Susan: I too made a go of it, supporting myself, but some of my friends did not. Though there were various reasons, a common element was that they were excellent at their work but hated the msrketing side. If advising any freelancer, I'd have two pieces of advice: learn to sell, and live below your means.
Hi Susan,

My means are fortunately very slight, as I have a sunny flat in a housing co-operative in a neighbourhood with an extremely high walkability score (well, it is Duchesse's!). I can eat very nutritious and tasty food for little with the market a few minutes' walk away. And I save a lot when I'm working. My clients always give me high praise, but I'm not very good at selling myself - shy. The problem was that several of my clients folded in the past couple of years. Oh, I'm plugging away at it, but feel like a bit of a whore.

I wasn't complaining; I'm ok. Just discussing the current situation, which is scary for friends with kids or other uncompressible expenses. I did also point out structural problems in terms of what many need, due to bad urban and social planning. That too can be improved.
Mardel said…
I suppose I earned one of those impractical degrees in English Literature with a minor in religion. But I got my first computer job precisely because I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Spenser, so not such a waste.

I worry constantly about young people, everyone actually. I'm a firm believer in independence, in working hard, in saving first and foremost, and living below your means. Although I have splurged occasionally and have not always been frugal, I've always aggressively saved and invested. I also figured out pretty early on that to make the most of that hard work, and those savings, I had to learn as much as I could about managing money and wise investing.

Even a good education and a good career is not enough if you spend all or even most of what you make. I don't need much now, but I worry about those who are less resourceful.
Anonymous said…
I want to clarify that I'm not criticizing Women's Studies & other Humanities-type education on the merits. I think much of our country, at least, would benefit greatly from a lot more study of history, etc. When I told my daughters they were not allowed to major in Women's Studies, I also told them that if they really loved that subject, or history, or English (my Chem major daughter likes Chem but also liked her English classes very much), that they could choose that major, but would need to be prepared for the probable financial consequences.

My kids are lucky we can afford to send them to college so they will graduate without debt. I know their science degrees do not guarantee good jobs later, but I'm hoping it improves their chances. They have friends who are majoring in graphic design, communications, & criminal justice. For those kids (IMO), a small percentage will be very successful, & the others will probably struggle; they'll be the ones working retail. But if you find something you really love, then maybe you should go for it?
We have good friends who have one child, a daughter who is a talented artist. She was considering nursing school, but her dad convinced her to major in art instead. I can only assume that they are financially well off enough so that they can support her for quite some time! And she will probably inherit a lot someday.

---Jill Ann
Anonymous said…
Didn't someone write a book that said "get a law degree and don't have too many children" .. don't shoot me but I think that is close to true.
I'm sort of okay because I saved hard in my forties, tho' I wonder about the cost of the possible nursing home. I REALLY worry about my daughter, 50 with no retirement savings at all, working in the arts.
cgk said…
This is a very good post and I think you must be a wonderful parent. You are practical, clever and introspective - all good qualities for offering sound advice. Were you always so grounded even when you were younger? I've found I've blundered around so much through the years and often wonder how so many others seem so wise.
I highly recommend the Myers Briggs personality test for exploring how to align your life. It's good stuff and applicable to old and young alike.
barbara said…
We have worked as freelancer very successful for decades. Always saved money for "later". Then we took someone's advice and made a very wrong investment.
We could save a very little rest, which is melting now.
I've had nightmares about our situation.
Now we live on a very low budget, but we are happy with what he have.
So glad, we travelled a lot and enjoyed all the luxury we could afford then.
Duchesse said…
Mardel: Lovely story. Times change and my memory is of so many paths, some linear, some now. IMO new with a BA degree were in better position then to get a job than now. Unpaid internships were unheard of then, too.

Jill Ann: WIth the prison system actually groing, I wonder if criminal justics is not a demand credential? (However maybe the jobs are fairly low level, am not knowledgable.) I have a MA in Cmmunication Arts; 40+ years ago that was a 'hot new skill' and I got all kinds of jobs probably because employers thought I could do everything from counsel addicts to write corporate policy to educate executives- and I said, sure, I can.

I would think long and hard before heading down that path today, which is not to say I'd avoid it altoghether.
Carolyn from Oregon said…
Not considering anyone but yourself responsible for your retirement, no matter what your circumstances are now.

Don't assume an affluent, or even just solvent, partner will be available to you throughout life. And think seriously about the implications of career and lifestyle moves. I have several friends who are facing retirement without resources and fretting about money every minute.

There is no absolute security for anyone, but taking care of yourself goes a long way toward it. And eases the financial situation for your life partner.
Carolyn from Oregon said…
Not considering anyone but yourself responsible for your retirement, no matter what your circumstances are now.

Don't assume an affluent, or even just solvent, partner will be available to you throughout life. And think seriously about the implications of career and lifestyle moves. I have several friends who are facing retirement without resources and fretting about money every minute.

There is no absolute security for anyone, but taking care of yourself goes a long way toward it. And eases the financial situation for your life partner.
rb said…
I am in my late 40s and am absolutely bull-headed about supporting myself. I have always worked, and have done well enough so that I am how our household's primary breadwinner. (Yes, my husband and I constitute one of those demographic data points everyone is talking about.)

But women younger than me see women my age trying to have "it all" and think we are doing it wrong. So many of them are making more traditional choices.

I absolutely agree that a woman needs to be able to support herself and her family. All those gorgeous and expensive weddings I attended when I was in my 20s? Close to half of them no longer together.

No bride wants to hear this, acknowlege this, or even think about it. But stuff happens, people change, people die. You have to go into life with your eyes open.
Anonymous said…
Yes, yes and yes! I share all finances with my husband, and after 20 years together (since we were 16) I trust him implictly, but I still make sure that my name is jointly on all our assets and accounts.

I have worked full time in reasonably well paid positions since I finished Uni and hope to continue to build a successful career.

(As a non-American I find it APPALLING that people can be financially wiped out because they were unlucky enough to get ill. Talk about kicking someone when they're down!)

Also, on degrees - I'm more of the school that it matters less what degree you do, than what skills you pick up while doing it. Almost all my friends are in totally different fields than their degrees. My sister in law is a very successful project manager with a Fine Arts degree.

AND you don't study once then never again these days. You need to keep going back and doing courses and things. I did a BA in English, then about 10 years later, a Masters in Management. I expect I'll keep learning various things formally and informally all my life.

My father in law, mother in law and Aunt are all in their 50s and 60s and completing degrees in the arts that they didn't manage to do while younger and always regretted not doing. Parents - don't blight the lives of your children by forcing them into something that's really not them.
Duchesse said…
Carolyn: I see your crisp comments etched onto a tray and presented to every bride.

rb: Do you read materfamilias' blog, Materfamilias Writes? She has detailed two of her children's weddings in the past two years, and I so appreciated how they were done- beautiful and joyous but not over the top, reeking of ostentation. Many young people are refusing that; there are sites dedicated to DIY or lower-cost celebrations. But the divorce stats- we can control those less.

I think the "follow your bliss/utility" polarity regarding educational credentials is like "work/stay at home with children" dilemma many women face, and a personal choice. But if you have to support yourself, you might study the more ephemeral subjects as a minor, or self-study.

Jasmine, in the film, dropped out of university- but more significantly, had and no skills (except for a nascent ability in interior design) and was not computer literate.

I am an avid proponent of lifelong learning, much of which occurs outside formal institutions, in the community, workplace, cultural institutions or with self-study.

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