Friday Book Club: 55, Underemployed and Faking Normal


Chip: When I was writing “Wisdom@Work,” I had the good fortune of getting to know Elizabeth White, whose 
TED Talk from 2017 floored me. Then, I read her book entitled “55, Underemployed and Faking Normal: Your Guide to a Better Life” and I fell in love with her.

Fortunately, she was able to join us as an MEA student in June 2019 and now we’re fortunate enough to have her here for our Friday Book Club. Because of the length of this interview and how great it is, we’ve split it in half with the second portion being printed tomorrow. Welcome, Elizabeth. Tell us a little bit about background and the story that led you to giving the talk and writing the book.

Elizabeth: I am someone who was doing really well until I wasn’t. Zigging and zagging. I had what a friend called a “bohemian bling” lifestyle. Big natural hair, diamond nose post, Harvard MBA, World Bank, high level consulting, lots of international travel. Then the Great Recession hit, and my work dried up overnight. I was 55 and, at the time, didn’t know to be worried. I had never had trouble getting assignments before. I had the kind of network that plugged me into jobs before they were even posted. But this time was different. My phone was not ringing, and weeks turned into months. With zero income I was racing through my savings.

I had some very low points. At the time I didn’t know how common my story was. A 2018 study found that half of American workers will lose their jobs in their fifties. And of that number only 10 percent will ever get jobs again commensurate with the ones they left. This is when I started to understand that the 58-year-old I saw staffing the front desk at my local gym or bagging groceries at Trader Joe’s was probably not there because he wanted to be.

Chip: You wrote an essay called “You Know Her” describing what it feels like to land in a difficult place after a lifetime of achievement. It got picked up by the PBS Facebook page and led to tens of thousands of “Likes” and connected you to all kinds of people who were struggling with feeling invisible and irrelevant. What is the best advice you can give to people bewildered in their 50s and 60s?

Elizabeth: The truth is we don’t talk about the millions of older Americans in financial jeopardy facing a “work for life” proposition. I am not just talking about the marginalized poor who, after a lifetime of struggle, are having a rough go of it in old age. I’m talking about middle class people who’ve had career choices and decent incomes until the bottom fell out with no ladder to climb back up. And what the glowing economic headlines of January and February obscured is that 40 percent of near retirees were already facing poverty or near poverty conditions before the pandemic.

As a country we like to pretend that the financial hardship people face is not systemic, but their own darned fault, a side effect of poor planning and feckless/irresponsible behavior. This shaming and blaming keeps people silent and small. But the financial challenges many older adults are facing are systemic. Their so-called bootstrap ingenuity is no match for disappearing pensions, flat and falling wages, uncertain work, rampant workplace age discrimination, and escalating costs in housing, etc. And it’s surely no match for a global health pandemic and an economy that has nearly cratered.

I wrote 55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal to bring urgent attention and national focus to the millions of older adults living in financial jeopardy. There is power in numbers. There is so much boomer talent out here sidelined. We need to know that we are not alone as a first step to getting our agency back.

And we need to do this and more, not just for ourselves, but for the generations behind us. This retirement income crisis is not just some pesky little boomer problem. Gen Xers and Millennials are not going to have pensions either.

Chip: What’s a Resilience Circle and how might that be helpful?

Elizabeth: My book is about what to do in the meantime if you are living this retirement crisis now. It’s a survival guide with strategies, life hacks, over 150 online resources, and wisdom and learning from our contemporaries who have successfully navigated these waters. When I was writing the book, I had this one friend who kept telling me this book better not be a “talkathon,” it better have stuff in it people can use. I heeded that advice and wrote the book I needed to read when I was at my lowest point.

One of the things that really helped me was what I came to call my Resilience Circle (RC). It gets hard “faking normal,” pretending you’re OK when you’re not OK. My RC was a place I could go to tell the truth about what was happening to me and hear from others. There were five of us (men and women). We weren’t all in the same city. We mainly shared information and resources, but also bartered and kept each other grounded and sane. My book includes guidance on how to start your own Resilience Circle. To help facilitate discussion, I ended each chapter in my book with questions my RC considered as a jump off point for your own group.

Chip: Given your story was centered during the Great Recession, it seems like we may see a repeat during this unprecedented 2020. Have you seen an increase in the number of mid-lifers reaching out to you and are there any nuances to what you’re hearing now versus in the past?

Elizabeth: Yes, I am hearing from a lot of people. The big difference between 2008 and now is the magnitude of the jobless crisis. In just three months, we have surpassed the number of unemployment claims filed during the Great Recession. With so many people unemployed, there is not the same shame and stigma associated with being out of work today as there was in 2008. But as the economy opens up and some get work right away and others join the ranks of the long-term unemployed, I expect the empathy/sympathy we see now to harden. We are already witnessing a return to the common frame of the deserving and undeserving working poor which emphasizes bad character versus bad policies and shames many into silence.

Also, there was no health pandemic in 2008. Today we know that age is one of the risk factors for severe COVID-19 illness and older adults are disproportionately targeted by the virus. People are asking if this means that hiring managers will see those of us in our late fifties, sixties, and beyond as high health risks? As older workers, we are already facing rampant workplace age discrimination. Will COVID-19 be yet another strike against older job applicants?

Chip: Thanks for this engaging interview. The second part will be posted tomorrow and will focus on race in America and what Elizabeth gained from her experience at MEA.

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