RALEIGH, N.C. — Female baby boomers shattered glass ceilings and enrolled in colleges that shut out their mothers. They took pills to control how many babies they would bear. Others chose to forgo motherhood and stay single; some married and stayed home to tend to their families.
And all this unprecedented freedom of choice got many single female baby boomers to a dead end, wondering how they'll afford to live decades longer.
Single female baby boomers are the least-prepared of this more than 75-million-strong generation to financially navigate their senior years. Their moms, too, weren't prepared, but most braved those years alongside a husband.
About 40 percent of female baby boomers are single now — up from 30 percent in 1989 — and most never meant to be. Nationally, there are about 17 million single females ages 46 to 64; about two-thirds of them separated from, divorced or buried their spouse.
While many baby boomer women stayed home, at least for a time, to raise their children, the generation brought the first sizable number of women to the work force. And, many thrived, leading experts to hope this generation of women would be better prepared financially for their senior years.
"I think everyone expected these women to be different. They lived differently and we hoped they could retire differently, too," said Donna Watkins, a Raleigh-based financial specialist for ClearPoint Credit Counseling Solutions, a nonprofit that has worked with many female baby boomers struggling to prepare for retirement.
But, working wasn't the silver bullet. Those who joined the work force earned less than their male counterparts, nationally about 77 cents to the man's dollar. And many who devoted their prime to motherhood find themselves divorced and returning to a work force that doesn't have space or patience for them. Those women had less time to build up their Social Security savings or 401(k) plans.
Experts began predicting this landmine for single females nearing retirement years ago. The Federal Reserve Board found in 2001 that only a third of single women had any sort of retirement savings account; at the same time, less than 10 percent of single women had a pension through their jobs. This compared to about two-thirds of married couples and 42 percent of single men having retirement accounts.
Now, the turbulent economy has turned those early warnings into full-scale alarms. Even the women who prepared have had their plans derailed. Some eye their retirement savings warily and wonder whether they will outlive the money they set aside for these years, a real possibility as their life expectancy stretched to age 85. Others are heading back to work.
Practically all of them are kicking themselves for not doing better.
"I never thought about retirement. No one ever talked about it and what I needed to do," said Katrina Philips, 62, of Clayton, N.C. "I guess I was stupid about it."
Like Philips, Bette Lee Drake didn't waste much time thinking about saving for her senior years.
Her father was an affluent cattle rancher in Texas and her mother's side of the family had money, too.
"I never thought I'd have to work," said Drake, 62, of Raleigh. "I thought I'd be at home as a wife and a mother. I had no ambition. I figured I'd be a princess for the rest of my life."
Drake's prince didn't stick around, however, leaving her as a single mother of three children. Drake's mother urged her to go to college to earn a teaching degree.
Drake said she tried to be savvy. She moved to a school district that compensated teachers well and offered a pension. She bought a house. She saved for her children's education. After those expenses, she had little left in her paycheck.
It wasn't until 15 years ago that Drake saved her first dime for retirement.
"Retirement? How was I supposed to pay for that, too?" Drake asked.
"I wish someone had sat me down and told me I had to figure this out," she added.
Laura Kay House, owner of Silver Connections, a social networking group for single baby boomers, is very familiar with the fairy tale many of her clients held dear.
"Many of these women were raised to get married and have babies," House said. "Life didn't go as planned and they weren't prepared."
Watkins, the financial counselor, said the older baby boomer women didn't get the financial lessons their children have, even though they were entering the work force and earning their own money.
"They were poorly educated about their retirement," Watkins said. "There was this old mythology that women weren't good with numbers and they shouldn't fuss over them."
Philips said her retirement plan was her husband. She figured they would rely on his military pension. But he became an ex two years ago, and she said she got none of that.
To make matters worse, Philips lost her full-time job months before and has struggled to find steady work since.
Once upon a time, Philips, a former banker, did have a retirement account. The bank where she worked even matched her contributions. But the bank eventually closed its office in her town, leaving her jobless with few prospects.
She cashed in her retirement to keep from losing her house.
Philips said she's been turned down from more jobs than she can count. Another challenge: the missing years on her resume she spent staying at home and raising her daughter.
Last month things got so dire that Philips applied for food stamps.
Financial planners say single women often get caught saving for big-ticket items other than retirement. The biggest: a child's education.
"They are doing their best to save for their kids' education," said Jim Trull, certified financial planner with Keystone Financial Partners. "All of a sudden, they wake up one day and realize they are 55 and have only $100,000 in their 401(k) and they make $70,000 a year."
In 2009, Margaret VanDeCar of Raleigh had a great accounting job and was on track financially to retire in her 60s. Then, a layoff notice landed on her desk.
She was 58 and counting heavily on her earnings to fluff her retirement nest egg.
"I never anticipated that setback," said VanDeCar, who divorced her husband 17 years ago.
VanDeCar competed with women half her age for open positions. It took 18 months before she landed another accounting job through a connection.
"I just never thought about having to navigate a job market at this age," said VanDeCar, now 59.
Many of the single boomer women who had already stepped into retirement are facing the same cold reception as they try to wedge their way back into the job market.
Arnita Woodard, 61 of Garner, N.C., took early retirement a decade ago from her management job at Duke Energy. She figured volunteering to take a buyout would spare another employee who still had young children. She had already gotten her son into college.
Woodard, a divorcee, imagined finding other work to help supplement her pension. Those jobs were hard to land. Finally, a year ago, Woodard decided to start her own business, offering companionship and organizational help to older seniors.
"For me, this is the difference between paying my bills and getting to have some fun," Woodard said.
Drake, the retired teacher, is also looking for the same sort of supplement. She earned $2,200 a month from her pension plan, but she has been nibbling at her savings to cover fun activities and travel. She has already spent the $40,000 profit she made when she sold her house last year.
Drake imagined finding work as a substitute teacher. But, with the state budget crisis, those jobs have grown scarce.
She did get a job as a clerk at a women's clothing store, where she earns $8 an hour. Drake figures she spent three times her paycheck shopping. She quit and has vowed to stay out of the mall.
For all the single boomers' efforts to save enough money to cover their expenses in retirement, they are caught flat-footed on a critical issue: long-term care insurance.
None of the women in this story have purchased policies that would cover the costs of skilled care help or an assisted living facility if they need it.
That is a common trend. The AARP said boomer women are ill-prepared for long-term care needs. According to a survey of boomer women, more than half of female baby boomers do not have a long-term care insurance policy, and two-thirds said they couldn't afford the premiums, according to the AARP survey.
That gap promises to be an enormous problem because these women are expected to live to age 85 or older.
Many of the women sheepishly said they'd turn to their children if they needed help.
"My son said he'll take care of me when I get to that point," said Woodard of Garner.
The average cost for an assisted living facility in 2010 was $38,000 a year. A private room in a nursing home was nearly double that.
"We're probably in denial about it," said VanDeCar, the accountant. "We think we're the caregivers and we don't need the care. But I guess that won't be the case forever."
Drake, the retired teacher, refuses to be a burden to her children. Years ago, she had a stern talk with one of her daughters about how to handle her if she is sick.
"I told her to take me to a mountain top and leave me there," Drake said. "There's only so much I can worry about and this isn't one of them."