Elizabeth White, author of Fifty-five, Underemployed and Faking Normal, is an aging solutions advocate for older adults facing uncertain work and financial insecurity. When she could not find a book that met her needs during her own bout of long-term unemployment, she wrote it herself. She wrote it as a 62-year-old woman who has lived the stories she describes, and as a Harvard MBA, former retail entrepreneur, and C-suite executive who never expected to land here.
Your story clearly resonates with so many (your TED Talk, An Honest Look at the Personal Finance Crisis, has nearly 1.5 million views). Are you surprised by how quiet people have been to date about their personal hardships of aging and work when the problems are so pervasive?
Elizabeth White: I am not surprised. My book is based on an essay I wrote describing what it felt like to be facing downward mobility after a lifetime of career choice and significant income. The essay made its way onto the PBS Facebook page where it went viral, receiving some 11,000 likes and over 1,000 comments in 3 days. All these people were saying “me too, me too” or that this was happening to their brother, sister, or best friend. Dozens wrote me personally. The common theme in the correspondence I received was self-blame, shame, and embarrassment. Everyone thought they were an outlier, the only ones woefully unprepared for retirement.
Media portrayals of retirement are partly to blame. We’ve all seen the youthful-looking older couple clinking champagne glasses on a cruise ship or standing beaming in front of their recently purchased small business. We hear about all the cool reinvention stories—the lawyer turned pastry chef. Affluent boomers are who the marketers focus on. If you can’t live that life you think something’s wrong with you personally, that somehow you screwed up. This self-blaming and shame keeps people silent and isolated.
When it comes to financial fragility as we age, why is it critical to shift the blame from individual responsibility to a collective one?
Elizabeth White: So, what are we saying, that tens of millions of people across all walks of life and different social addresses suddenly became financially irresponsible in their fifties after a life time of hard work—that they alone screwed up their retirement with their spend-thrift ways and all those lattes they were consuming?
My book and TED Talk say, stop drinking that Koolaid. The personal financial fragility that millions of older adults are experiencing has much more to do with disappearing pensions, workplace age discrimination, stagnant wages, and escalating costs in healthcare, housing, and education than how many times a person went to Starbucks. Through the blame and shame lens, we tinker around the edges of the retirement income crisis, ignore the root causes, ask the wrong questions, and kick a comprehensive solution down the road.'The personal financial fragility that millions of older adults are experiencing has much more to do with disappearing pensions, workplace age discrimination, stagnant wages, and escalating costs than how many times a person went to Starbucks.'Click To Tweet
In your new book “55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal,” you write, “We need our business leaders to step up”. How so?
Elizabeth White: The 50-plus demographic spends some $7 trillion per year and accounts for over 50 percent of the spend on cars, trucks, apparel, consumer packaged goods, etc. If we’re not working, we can’t buy stuff. It’s puzzling to me why more companies don’t make this connection, don’t think about their bottom line and what happens when millions of their customers (out of work or underemployed) start pumping the brakes on their spending and stop shopping beyond basic necessities.
Companies having success retaining and re-integrating people over age 50 back into the workforce need a bigger megaphone. I’d like to see whole conferences dedicated to this topic. Let’s learn about what’s working and what’s not working, where we need new legislation, etc.
I would also like to see business produce more innovative/affordable products and services to address the needs of financially strapped older adults, boomers in financial jeopardy, and the millions of younger adults on the same path.
The median retirement savings for near retirees (55-64) across all social addresses in the US is only $15,000. It’s $60,000 for middle-income near-retirees which is still peanuts considering that life expectancy is pushing 80 years. The economics of aging will, thus, force the majority of us to figure out how to live on less, often much less.
Which part of our Respectful Exits Longevity Agenda most resonates with you, and why?
Elizabeth White: They are all important, but two really resonate with me: 1) ending retirement age, and 2) phased retirement.
The majority of us will spend a full twenty years or more in so-called “retirement.” That’s a long runway if you haven’t saved for it, and most Americans have not. That means we are going to need to work much longer than we imagined to make ends meet.'The majority of us will spend a full twenty years or more in so-called 'retirement.' That’s a long runway if you haven’t saved for it, and most Americans have not.'Click To Tweet
Sixty-five is also not what it used to be. Our active life span without disability is growing faster than life expectancy. Many of us can and do want to work well into our sixties, seventies and beyond. Retirement at 65 made sense when Social Security was introduced back in 1935 and average life expectancy was 61 years. It’s a relic from a different era today.
That said, the majority of us in our sixties and beyond probably aren’t looking to work a 60-hour week. We may not even want to work full-time. That’s why I like the idea of a flexible and phased retirement which may span over a number of years. Technology gives businesses the ability to customize work experiences and they do so routinely for younger workers, but not for older ones.
Our tool “ThePhazer” gives aging workers step-by-step guidance to request and obtain extended work and flexible and phased retirement options. How could this resource be a game-changer for pre-retirees?
Elizabeth White: In the absence of comprehensive federal action to address the retirement income crisis we, who are living it now, are often left to improvise solutions. ThePhazer gives older workers a robust tool to begin having a conversation with their current employer as they approach traditional retirement age.'ThePhazer gives older workers a robust tool to begin having a conversation with their current employer as they approach traditional retirement age.'Click To Tweet
Already based on best practice, they don’t have to reinvent the wheel. It also gives an employer an opportunity to pilot test a phased retirement option they may not be currently offering. In that way, it can serve as a template for a future policy which would ultimately benefit all workers/employees.