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Elizabeth White has degrees from top-tier institutions: Oberlin, Harvard, Johns Hopkins. She has a home in the U Street NW corridor. And her work takes her across the globe. But back in 2008, after a seismic shift occurred in her professional world at age 55, White found it nearly impossible to climb back to the life she built.
Her story isn’t entirely unique. A recent study conducted by ProPublica and the Urban Institute found that over half of workers aged 50 and older are pushed out of jobs before they’re ready to retire, often times causing irreversible financial damage.
White, now 65, first shared her story in an essay published in 2015. It was the basis for her TED Talk that’s gained more than 1.2 million YouTube views, and the inspiration for her new book 55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal, which will be published this month by Simon & Schuster.
City Paper recently spoke with White about her new book, getting beyond denial, blame, and the shame of being underemployed or unemployed when you’re close to senior citizenship.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Washington City Paper: Where were you at the time you were “faking normal?”
Elizabeth White: During the Great Recession I lost two long-term consulting assignments. The combined income had me comfortable for a number of years, and within six months I went to zero. During that time, many companies were retrenching, and the two companies eliminated their consultant positions. I was in my mid-50s. I had a great career zigging/zagging [the] World Bank. I’ve been an entrepreneur, worked for the African Development Foundation. In the past, not a lot of trouble finding work. Suddenly it was crickets. I was not hearing back from calls that I was making, [and] networking I was doing. It just wasn’t happening.
That’s when I thought of this expression “faking normal,” because at that point you still have the clothes, you’re still living in the neighborhood, you still maybe have the car. You look the same outwardly. We live in a city where you get no bonus points at all talking about your financial woes or any of your problems. There is the big investment you make in seeming like you’re okay when maybe you aren’t. And it was at that time I wrote the essay “You Know Her,” which describes what it feels like to land here. What does it feel like to have had a good career and to have the kinds of opportunities I’ve had, and then for it suddenly to go dark? To go silent?
WCP: Why did you choose to publicly reveal what you and friends were going through on Next Avenue?
EW: It was really a moment of despair. Somehow [the essay] made its way onto the PBS Facebook page and in a very short time it had 11,000 likes and over a thousand comments. I read every single post and was astonished by what I was reading. There were so many people saying “Me too, me too. This is my brother, my husband, me,” or “my sister.” Why is no one talking about this? Because the talk we have about retirement is much more [about] moving to Costa Rica. You see beaming boomers standing in front of their newly purchased pizza parlor, or you see them on cruise ships clinking champagne glasses. This was not the reality for myself or my friends, and many of my friends had really accomplished backgrounds.
WCP: What data did you uncover about this reality and how did that stand out to you?
EW: That the median retirement income for near-retirees (55 to 64) is only $15,000. When you think about it, we’re in reasonably good health. We’re going to live another 20 years easily, and $15,000 doesn’t cut it. Even the top 10 percent of earners, the median retirement savings there is $200 thousand. These are small numbers relative to the number of years we’re going to live.
Millennials don’t have pensions either. They’re also facing stagnant wages, job insecurity, and escalating cost in housing, healthcare, and the rest of it. Boomers were just the first ones up that hill facing this challenge. But in lock-step behind them is everyone else.
WCP: How are millennials affected?
EW: They see this happening to their parents. Parents who used to be able to chip in on the rent, maybe pick up an air ticket at Thanksgiving now can no longer do it. They see parents who, under the financial pressure of this, are getting divorced, mothers trying to hang on to houses so that they’re not foreclosed on. I’m finding that many who are much younger actually resonate with what I’m talking about.
WCP: You applied for food stamps. What did you learn from that experience?
EW: Things were really kind of dire, and my house was at risk. I had friends who were actually ahead of me who already applied, gotten over the shame, and talked about what the experience was like. Once I went in I was already mentally looking at it as strategy, not failure. I think that’s the important message that I got from friends, that as you do these things—move in with your neat-nut brother that you’d rather not move in with, conduct voluntary repossession of your car—whatever it is that you need to do to secure yourself, you think of this as strategy not failure.
WCP: Your book talks about “smalling up.” How is that different from downsizing?
EW: For me downsizing is about being on a budget. This [smalling up] is really getting clear about how we root and center ourselves on what we need to be happy. What is it going to take to have a textured interesting life on a modest income?
I like a nice gym. I had to give up my gym membership but fortunately, here in D.C., there’re free gyms. I had a meeting in New York, and I had to be there at noon. I’m accustomed to taking the millennial-type buses on Friday. But if you’ve got to be in New York on a Tuesday, that means you’re taking Greyhound. And I’m someone who’s flown Concorde before.
You can focus on that closed door or you can turn around and start to look at what’s possible in front of you.
WCP: Your book encourages forming “Resilience Circles.” How does that work?
EW: The scaffolding that helped me up had to do with my mother, my daughter, and a small circle of friends. These are friends that I met with on a regular basis that I could tell the truth to about what was happening to me. When I was lost and doubting myself they could remind me who I was, what I knew, what I was capable of because there’s so little help for this. We also shared resources with each other. They told me about a program that would help with the mortgage.
WCP: Where are you today?
EW: I’m still in what I would call a feast or famine situation. I do see light at the end of the tunnel. I’m not where I was 10 years ago, and I don’t think I’ll be where I was 2 years ago. But I do feel like I am doing the work that is intended for me to do.
But it’s important to say this is not all individual effort. It is easy to make it about “oh you drank too many lattes, too much bottled water. You’re here because of all that avocado toast you’re eating.” That misses some of these bigger issues that are actually driving what’s happening.
Elizabeth White will appear at Politics & Prose for a discussion and book signing on Jan. 11. 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. 7 p.m. Free.