I hate the cliché “money doesn’t buy happiness.” I get the meaning, and I agree with it – that’s why I went into English literature in college and not medicine (that, and it would be the most inappropriate major for a science-dud like me). But what angers me about this saying is that it lets people off the hook who don’t believe that there is income inequality or don’t think anything should be done about it.
How did I come to this topic? I read an article on the Huffington Post written by Lulu – the British pop singer who had a huge hit in the 60s with “To Sir, with Love.” Titled “Five Lessons to Be Learned From Ageing in the Spotlight” the singing HuffPo contributor talks about how at 64, she’s ageing “victoriously” because she looks to women who are aging well in the spotlight – which she sees as being harder than aging for civilians (we’ll get to that in a moment). Then Lulu offers her readers 5 lessons:
- It’s possible to get better with age. No argument here, I agree – I think people “of a certain age” are certainly more interesting, wiser, smarter and funnier than their younger counterparts. The only problem is that for an example to illustrate her point, Lulu doesn’t use, say a hardworking school teacher or a plumber, but megastar Jennifer Lopez. She then prattles on about how Lopez gets it right with her hair and makeup, which she then attributes to – and I swear to god, she does, to “experience and wisdom.” Not to know Lopez, who I’m sure is a lovely and hardworking woman, but if she’s looking fantastic, it’s become she’s got some experienced and wise stylists, makeup artists, hair dressers, and fitness trainers who get to work on Jennifer Lopez – I mean, really they all are working with a major head start.
- Don’t underestimate the power of reinvention. Again, a great point – people can turn their lives around. We hear lots of great heart-warming stories of formerly homeless women who become business execs or drug addicts who sober up. But who does Lulu cite as examples of hard-won reinvention: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Madonna, and herself. Schwarzenegger and Madonna. I’m not sure if I even have to say anything.
- It’s all about attitude. She’s right again, it’s all about attitude. I know a lady who’s 70 and works as a receptionist at a college. Because of the college’s tuition remission program, she’s been taking classes every semester, working her way towards a Bachelor’s in history. Kinda awesome. She knows she won’t use the degree in her career, but she loves learning and so she does it. Her attitude is “I’ll always be a student.” That’s a great attitude. Again, instead of using examples that would be helpful, she talks about Betty White, who at over 90, is still working prolifically because she’s got a great attitude. Of course White has a great attitude – she’s got a great career, has been in two iconic TV shows, won a buttload of awards, and has been experience the kind of renaissance only reserved for periods in history. But how does a 90 year old woman who’s living on a fixed income in assisted housing supposed to relate to White, who can say “aging doesn’t matter!” when she has access to quality health care? How can said woman relate to White who can pick and choose the kind of work that she does and be paid handsomely? Attitude is important, but circumstances are important, as well – I’m not saying my fictional retired lady cannot have as good an attitude toward aging as White, but hearing from that woman would be helpful. In fact, we never get to hear from old people – especially women – we don’t care about their opinions or thoughts, unless they’re famous.
- A rolling stone gathers no moss. Working and keeping on the move is important, but yet again, Lulu fouls up any of her good and salient points by citing Hillary Clinton and Oprah Winfrey as examples. Are you freakin’ kidding me? Oprah and Hillary, probably the two most accomplished women of our time who juggle careers and a family life. Not as hard as one might think if you had a billion dollars in the bank, or if you are a career politician once married to the president of the United States. Juggling is hard with only two hands – but all women working class and poor women do it – rich women like Winfrey and Clinton don’t juggle with two hands, they juggle with a fleet of hands. And again, this doesn’t take away from the incredible work that they do – it’s not easy work, and they’ve earned all their money and perks. But let’s be real, these are not real world examples. These examples do not address any issues that affect women over 60.
- How you look impacts how you feel. I think this example angered me the most because again, when citing examples, she doesn’t talk about an elegant librarian who wears lovely sweaters she found at a charity shop, or the handsome social worker who takes the time to look her best when doing her job. No, we get Helen Mirren, Jane Fonda, Goldie Hawn, and Sophia Loren, who according to Lulu “all seem to be defying the ageing process” and “are great examples of how a little bit of effort goes a long way.” I’m not even going to touch the plastic surgery issue, because that’d be too easy, but let’s be honest, even at our best, most of us don’t start off looking like Goldie Hawn or Sophia Loren – these women are movie stars because they resemble the kinds of goddesses we see in ancient Roman ruins. It’s their job to be beautiful – an industry that winnows out “normal” looking women in favor of glamazons like the ladies she mentioned. So to say that they’re great examples of women who are defying the ageing process is like saying Stephen Hawking, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Jocelyn Bell Burnell are good examples of what could happen if you just spend a little bit more time in the library studying.
I know that Lulu didn’t mean to sound out of touch, but she does. Aging is something that is rarely talked about in public, candidly. We want to pretend aging is fun and that it can be a rewarding time in one’s life. And it can be. And you don’t necessarily need to be wealthy to enjoy life. But, let’s be honest, money and class is a divider in society, and it marks just how one navigates through life – a true life situation for most older women is dealing with health issues, struggling with finance, shouldering the overwhelming burden of figuring out health insurance, trying to forge a career or trying to keep a job, on top of wanting to look attractive, be active, and have a good attitude about life.
This isn’t an attack on Lulu though – this is an attack on our unwillingness to address the issues that make it harder for poor people to grow older. We gloss over these issues with happy talk about how “you can be sexy even at 70 – look at Goldie Hawn!” because it’s easier than to actually address the collapse of meritocracy, the disintegration of the middle class, the stall of female equality in the workplace, the lack of access to quality health insurance, and the persistent discrimination that the aged in society must contend with.
I hope Lulu does a follow-up to her article where she addresses these issues, and speaks to women who deal with these problems head on, and manage to still live the values she puts forward in spite of them. That would be an article worth reading.