Recently on Paul Solman’s News Hour series Making Sense there was a story about Elizabeth White. White recently self-published a book, 55 Unemployed, and Faking Normal. The book is road map to coping with current economic realities. 55, Unemployed, and Faking Normal contains themes which are relevant to Better, Smarter, Richer. We reached out to White to talk about her book.
People facing these issues head on are those close to traditional retirement, or people who would normally be retired. White herself has a distinguished career which includes working for the World Bank and holding a senior executive position at a midsize NGO. At one point she ran a chain of retail stores that sold African themed decor. She closed the retail stores when she realized it was not working. She did consulting for a few years after that, then everything went bust in 2008.
White started blogging in 2015 for Next Avenue, which is owned by PBS. Her blog was largely about the emotional aspects of unstable income. She includes discussions about the mechanisms that got us here in the first place.
“My friends and I started telling the truth,” White said in an interview from her home in Adams Morgan, Washington D.C. She and her peers “were looking at the rubble of Plan A. What do you do? How do you live a richly textured life on reduced income? Employment is still unstable, even when you did everything right. Same for other events such a medical issue or divorce.” People emailed their stories to White. This conversation ended up in the blog. The blog post got about a eleven thousand likes and a thousand comments in three days. The blog posts struck a chord with those previously reluctant to talk about their situation.
“Twenty-nine percent of older age 55 to 64 have not saved a dime,” White says. “And among those who have saved, the median value of retirement accounts for that age group is about $100,000. Now $100,000 is better than zero, but really how long are you going to last on that… three years maybe.” One of the main reasons White wrote the book was to let people know that they don’t have to put on airs with their circumstances. No one needs to pretend that they are middle class, when in fact they are struggling. “We need to speak candidly with each other. “
Budgeting takes on new meaning. It is about what you need to maintain a quality of life. White if a lifelong learner, and enjoys going to conferences. Rather than pay for the whole ticket, she will volunteer or blog in return for admission. She knows of some who will split an entree with others so they can still have the experience of eating out. It’s important to know what you care about. White knows of one individual who drives beat up, raggedy cars. He saved $15,000 so he could buy a flute because music is what really matters to him.
White also wonders if at some point the sustainability movement and the retirement crisis will intersect. “Millions of us are going to have to make due with less. We need to small up,” to figure out what materials things wee need to feel deeply content and grounded. We need a new conversation about what that means.”
White talks about one significant aspect; the knowledge base of this demographic is not being tapped. “The most educated generation in history. Talent has been sidelined. Millions of people are underemployed and unemployed.” That said, people need to eat, it is time to be resourceful in finding income. Many in the the 55+ age group won’t find work that pays what they once were making. White says she had “to get off her throne,” taking jobs she would not have considered before. Your skills, car and home are now assets that are now for hire, a la Uber, Fiverr, and AirB&B.
Youth culture is highly valued. This affects older generations, in ways different ways. “I was at the grocery store the other day and forgot to ask for my senior discount. I got it anyway.” The perception of being older but looking younger is in and of itself a quandary. Looking young is celebrated. White says we need to re-think what it means to be older. It should be socially acceptable to be older. “What are the advantages of aging, the attributes we hold up? Matthias Hollwich in his book New Aging talks about the gifts of age.”
White says she is struck by the loss of unengaged talent, which she says is a waste considering all that needs to be done. She would like to see inter-generational teams of workers. Places like The Encorepreneur Cafe, which offers a space for older adults to mix with not only their peers but invite multi-age interaction in a robust entrepreneurial environment. Classes at the Cafe include Jackie B. Peterson’s Keys to Solo Business Success, May 4, 2017 .
Watch the News Hour story on Elizabeth White here.