Q&A with sociologist and expert on aging Beth Truesdale ’97
St. Olaf College alumna Beth Truesdale ’97 is a sociologist and a research associate at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies. Her work focuses on large and growing inequalities between rich and poor in the U.S. in health, income, and the quality of jobs — a situation that she argues is unjust. She examines how age discrimination in the workplace and the changing nature of work affect Americans’ well-being as our society ages.
Truesdale will speak on campus November 13 as part of the Institute for Freedom and Community’s fall series, “Discrimination and the Search for Truth and Justice.”
Her lecture, titled “Truth, Justice, and America’s Aging Workforce,” will begin at 7 p.m. in Viking Theater in Buntrock Commons. It is free and open to the public, and will be streamed live and available on demand online.
In anticipation of her return to St. Olaf, Truesdale sat down for a conversation with Institute for Freedom and Community Assistant Director Tanya Charlick-Paley.
How did your time at St. Olaf prepare you for success in your career?
From the moment I moved into Ellingson Hall, I had a wonderful time at St. Olaf. One of my favorite memories from the Hill is being part of the Great Conversation. As an 18-year-old, it was astonishing and exciting to learn that I could read and respond to Aristotle and Homer and Geoffrey Chaucer and Mary Wollstonecraft and Virginia Woolf. The “Great Con” taught me how to think critically, how to write clearly, and how to disagree with civility — skills that I need every day, not only as an academic, but as a citizen. I’m delighted that the Conversations program has since expanded to a whole range of interdisciplinary topics. I can’t imagine a better way to learn.
Since leaving St. Olaf, you’ve been building your career as a sociologist. Can you tell us about those experiences?
After St. Olaf, I spent three years as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University studying English, history, and theology. I stumbled into sociology by accident. After Oxford, I worked for several years in a small communications start-up in London. One year, a UK government department asked us to take on a project. They had conducted a public consultation about the future of the BBC and expected 500 responses. Instead, they had 5,000, and they still had to write a report for ministers in less than six weeks.
We agreed to write the report, and these 5,000 responses landed on my desk. We built a team of analysts, devised a coding scheme, and wrote the report. It was tremendous fun. Several similar projects followed. When I eventually realized that social scientists deal with these types of questions on purpose, I decided to apply to sociology Ph.D. programs. I did my Ph.D. at Harvard, and now I work at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies.
As a sociologist, you study economic inequality, labor markets, health, and public policy — what sparked your interest in these topics?
I’m from the generation of Oles who were invited to “live lives of worth and service,” as the college slogan had it. By any measure, the degree of economic inequality we have in the U.S. today is morally wrong. As a nation, we have the resources to make sure that no one is hungry or poor. But more than 40 million Americans, including 12 million children, live in households that struggle to put food on the table.
Poverty makes everything else harder. Children who experience poverty are more likely to struggle at school, have health problems when they grow up, and end up in jobs that make it hard for them to support their own families. And we have the policy tools — ranging from SNAP (food stamps) to a livable minimum wage to fair tax policy — to change poverty and inequality. If we aspire to live in a just society, we need to understand inequality and injustice.
Right now, several of your projects focus on inequalities in work and aging. Can you outline the issues with our current job climate?
In the U.S. and elsewhere, the pressure to work longer is increasing. Over recent decades, life expectancy has risen and birth rates have fallen. While this is good news, it also results in more years of retirement for individuals to pay for and relatively fewer people of working age paying into social insurance systems. Working longer looks like an attractive solution to both problems. In the U.S., working longer is the main solution we’ve chosen as a society — the Social Security full retirement age is rising from 65 to 67, and some say it should be older still.
But not everybody can work longer. Many people develop health problems that cause them to leave employment earlier than they plan to. Others leave work to care for an ailing spouse or their own aging parents. Still others want to continue to work, but lose their job and — because age discrimination is so pervasive — can’t get another one, or at least can’t get another one that is as attractive as the one they lost.
The Institute for Freedom and Community’s fall speaker series is titled “Discrimination and the Search for Truth and Justice.” How will your discussion explore this topic in relation to America’s aging workforce?
The issues with work and aging map onto existing inequalities in our society. College graduates are much more likely to work longer than people with less education, for instance, because highly educated people tend to have fewer health problems and more stable jobs.
At the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, I’m co-editing a volume titled Overtime: America’s Aging Workforce and the Future of “Working Longer,” which is funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. At St. Olaf, I’ll be discussing how changes in health, family, work, politics, and the economy may make it increasingly hard for substantial sections of the U.S. population to continue to work into their 60s and beyond.
The bottom line is that none of us, even those with college degrees and good jobs, can guarantee that we’ll be able to work as long as we might wish. In my talk, I’ll discuss the need for public policies that recognize this reality.