Barbienomics: from panacea to real world poverty

Barbienomics: from panacea to real world poverty


By Karen Friedman

I joined the throngs of people who flocked to see the monumentally popular movie, Barbie. I dressed up in hot pink from head to toe – because I can’t resist any opportunity for theatricality and a fun community event (which won’t surprise anyone who has been to our fundraising galas). My younger colleague Kate attended a screening as well, but she wore a black sundress and Birkenstocks because she belatedly realized that she doesn’t own any pink (and, unlike me, would not spend money buying frivolous pink clothes that she would likely never wear again).

We both loved the kaleidoscopic pastel world of Barbieland where women rule the roost, drive hot pink convertible sportscars (that Kate and I both coveted) and can be anything they desire anytime they want: President and Vice President of the United States, all nine of the Supreme Court justices, astronauts who explore and populate outer space – as well as take on just about any high-powered, high status and dramatic job one can envision.

In Barbieland, where everything is perfect for women, retirement security isn’t even an issue. For instance, if we all could be presidents (a position that no American woman has yet achieved) we’d be collecting a cool $230,000 annual pension (with lifetime health benefits for the 4-8 years we served in office). If we were the Supreme Court Chief Justice, we’d be generally getting our highest year of salary, about $280,000, every year for the rest of our lives; and if we were astronauts, we’d be making a good civil service pension plus lifetime health benefits.

But in the movie, when Barbie transitioned – by car, bike, VW bus and rocket ship — to the REAL World, she had a rude awakening upon discovering that women face discrimination, are often in lower-rung jobs – and, yes, they get OLD.

The fact is, women still generally lag behind men in wages and retirement income outcomes. As economist Teresa Ghilarducci pointed out in her recent Barbie commentary in Forbes, “since women are more likely to be low income — in 2022, women earn 83 cents for every dollar a man earns — their accumulated retirement assets are always going to be smaller for the same years of work.” She added that “In the real world, nonwhite Barbie is likely to have half the assets of white Barbie.”

In addition to the gender pay gap, retirement policy expert Nari Rhee (a Barbie fan who happily took her 7-year-old daughter to see the film) told me that “women still face structural barriers in retirement asset accumulation.” She said that women often must reduce their paid work hours or withdraw from the workforce to take care of kids – or aging parents. “This means lower Social Security benefits, as well as fewer years to participate in a pension or 401(k) and lower lifetime income from which to save for retirement.” Nari also mentioned that Midge, the only mother in Barbieland, would lose almost $300,000 over her lifetime in the real world due to her caregiving role. This is a big reason why older women – particularly those who are widowed, divorced or never married – have the highest poverty rates.

However, Gen Z women like Kate (born between 1997 and 2012) face barriers, too. They’re saddled with student loan debt, rising rents, and stagnant wages. The prospect of having their own Barbie Dream Home feels out of reach, let alone one day having a secure retirement. Kate knows, despite all the misinformation to the contrary, that Social Security will be there for her generation – and recognizes the importance of this foundation of retirement security for almost all American workers and their families. She also recognizes that younger generations are less likely to receive a traditional employer-sponsored pension than previous ones, and that 401(k)s have generally proven to be inadequate for all but the wealthy.

What should be done?

Teresa Ghilarducci suggested that Mattel should now develop a “Retired Barbie” doll, demonstrating that women can be old, beautiful and financially independent.

That’s a good idea. She also agrees that we need policies to fill the gap between that ideal retired Barbie doll and the real-world Barbies who often lose out in retirement (Kate and I think we should start a new field of study and call it “Barbienomics”)

For starters, and Teresa and Nari agree, we need to expand Social Security and require millionaires and billionaires to pay their fair share. We should also consider rejiggering the inequitable tax incentives for private sector retirement plans that now give the most benefit to the wealthiest who would save without them, and instead redirect these tax benefits to boost the retirement savings of lower-paid workers. We should work toward a universal, secure and adequate retirement system supplemental to an expanded Social Security.

Then we’d all be perfect Barbies, young and old.

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