Holly Lawrence is a journalist whose writing focuses on well-being and social issues affecting older adults. She is a regular contributor to PBS Next Avenue. Her work also appears on PBS.org and affiliate sites, Forbes, MarketWatch, MONEY’s “Retire with Money,” and other media outlets. In 2018, Holly was selected by AgingInPlace.com as one of the top 50 online influencers in the field of aging.
Previously working as a nonprofit director, a conference organizer, and in other positions in New York, Holly calls being a writer her ultimate reinvention. She is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, and she is currently writing her first book for older adults struggling with financial and psychological distress. Follow her at @hollyjlawrence.
Earlier this year, you wrote a personal essay for Next Avenue, Surviving on $3 a Day and Hope which became a lead story on PBS’ “Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America” public media initiative from WNET Thirteen New York. What prompted you to go public and share your personal experience?
Holly Lawrence: I had to be a voice for myself, and people in my shoes. My story was a deeply personal “reveal” of my life in crisis at age 58. For too long, I’ve felt overloaded by online advice about boosting retirement savings, financial planning, or selling your property.
How about those of us without a steady income or ability to pay for any emergency, let alone have retirement savings? I’m living proof of a national crisis impacting older Americans. I understand living with financial and psychological distress, having faced poverty, depression, and challenges of finding employment as an older job seeker.
But the big issue for me was why I started getting cold feet about writing the story after I had pitched it. Two things worried me.
I worried that my article would give potential employers yet another biased excuse not to hire me. My story gives away my actual age, my depression disability, my struggles getting hired, and my financial distress. I also worried about revealing that I’ve been a food stamps recipient. We’re in the middle of political angst about funding government programs like SNAP, and I worried that this would stir criticism.
Then it hit me. My unease represents the guilt, shame, and fear that goes through the minds of other people like me who are struggling, looking for a job or trying to hang on to the one they have.
So, I went ahead with the article, because I had to, for us.
Your article had an overwhelming response on social media. What stood out to you most about the replies you received?
Holly Lawrence: I noticed a kind of #MeToo reaction began immediately after Next Avenue and PBS ‘Chasing the Dream’ featured my story on their sites and on Facebook. People from around the world–mostly women over 50, but surprisingly also men in their 40s and older–have reached out to me directly. They’ve told me about losing their job after a certain age, fearing that if they lose this job they’ll face what I’ve gone through and not be able to get another job. Single women have told me that they’re not earning enough to retire, haven’t saved enough, or are widowed and have no income.
You share what you’ve learned in managing through hardship, to help empower individuals to seek change in their own lives. What are some lessons you might share to urge collective action on this issue?
Holly Lawrence: Finding our voice is essential to our well-being. Finding that unique way of sharing who we are and what we’ve learned with the world has helped me in my life crisis. And our (older) voices DO count. Unfortunately, employers, and our society as a whole, don’t seem to see it that way.
In one of my Next Avenue articles, I interviewed three highly accomplished male executives about age 60. None of them felt that their voice mattered in their work environments around younger colleagues. Two of the three were concerned that their days were numbered at work and feared they might lose their jobs before their retirement age.
The Respectful Exits Longevity Agenda points to a solution: ending the sell-by date. I feel the traditional concept of retirement should be retired. We’ve had an invisible sell-by date stamped on our heads, as ageist stereotypes have surrounded us at work, on job interviews, and in social situations. Employers and society can, and must, change their perception of older adults and start to hear our voices.Employers and society can, and must, change their perception of older adults and start to hear our voice,” says @hollyjlawrence #aging #longevity #smartemployersClick To Tweet
The Respectful Exits Longevity Agenda is directed at employer change. Which part of the Agenda most resonates with you, and why?
Holly Lawrence: I relate to the Agenda’s point on career-long development and training–but only if it’s one that is designed after mutual agreement between employee and employer.
First, we need to change the way that older workers are viewed.
We’re generally viewed as the weaker job candidate. The least productive employee. We are assumed to be the lowest performers. The least likely to be flexible to change or innovation. The least trainable. The least interested in wanting to learn new skills and technologies.
What we need is to be given the chance. If employers would give us that, by employing older candidates, by investing in continuous training and development, they will get a tremendous return on investment.
Our tool “ThePhazer” gives aging workers step-by-step guidance to request and obtain extended work and flexible and phased retirement options. What is your perspective on how this tool might help pre-retirees?
Holly Lawrence: From my perspective, retirement is not a concept that people like me in financial distress can even fathom. We operate in constant crisis mode, struggling after age 50 to get hired, struggling to pay rent and basic necessities. Unless major changes occur, retiring will always be an unattainable luxury except for those who can afford it.“Unless major changes occur, retiring will always be an unattainable luxury except for those who can afford it,” says @hollyjlawrence #retirement #agingworkers #ThePhazerClick To Tweet
On the positive side, ThePhazer could potentially be helpful in dismantling the traditional parent/child dynamic between employers and employees. In an ideal world, employees should feel free to have their voices heard, controlling their personal decision about how they wish to end their working career. I think this should be a collaborative discussion with input from both employee and employer.
Photo credit: Michael Roud Photography