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55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal: Your Guide to a Better Life

Dylan Schleicher

January 04, 2019

Elizabeth White has written a book that we believe can help a good part of a generation, and those that follow it, adapt to a new normal of financial instability as the social contract has been upended.

55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal: Your Guide to a Better Life by Elizabeth White, Simon & Schuster, 272 pages, Hardcover, January 2019, ISBN 9781501196805

We have the makings of a national crisis on the horizon, which, more importantly to most of our everyday lives, is made up of deeply personal crises that are leaving too many people we know hiding—feeling, in the words of Elizabeth White, “lost, ashamed, and shell-shocked.” After a lifetime of hard work, even great professional and financial success, many baby boomers are entering their retirement, or being forced into it, wholly unprepared for the cost of it. “How bad is it?” asks White. Well, “According to the US Census Bureau, two-thirds of Americans have no retirement savings whatsoever—no 401(k), no IRA, zip.” White writes:

 

As a country we are facing a retirement income crisis of mega-proportions. It is America’s big denial issue, what a friend of mine calls the “loud silence.”

 

We talk (and write) a lot here about the need for systemic change, but these conversations almost always comes back—no matter what kind of change we’re talking about—to one of us finally saying something along the lines of, Okay, I agree that is a great goal, but what do we do in the meantime? What can we do today? And, of course, as White writes in her new book, 55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal, “We’re living in the meantime.” Those larger systemic changes are probably not coming soon enough, if they come at all, for millions of people, especially in a divided government and two parties with fundamentally different conceptions for what the most important issues are and how to address them. Do we make healthcare universally available and untether it from employment that is increasingly offered without benefits in a gig economy, or do we need to put up a $21.6 billion border wall to curb immigration, even shutting down the government in an attempt to get a downpayment on this divider that would alter our biological identity forever?

In the meantime, especially with the demise of a company-managed pension (which, as Ellen E. Schultz exposed in Retirement Heist, are themselves often raided by the companies that manage them), we’re left mostly on our own to manage our retirement savings. The main device for doing so today, the 401(k), White argues, is a “do-it-yourself pension system [that] is failing millions of Americans.” Seventy percent of us don’t even know if we are being charged fees for participating in our 401(k), and 80 percent of us have no idea what we’re paying for, a lack of knowledge which leaves the following prospect seeming dim:

 

You have to voluntarily save 10 percent—or as some experts say, 15 to 20 percent—out of each paycheck for forty years despite flat wages and rising expenses.

 

And that’s assuming you don’t need to dip into it yourself to deal with medical or other emergencies. White gives the example of a registered nurse in Illinois making $66,730 a year. To maintain your current standard of living in this scenario, under the 20 percent suggestion, you’d need to save $1,334,600. According to the National Institute for Retirement Security:

 

For near-retirement households age fifty-five to sixty-four, the median account balance was $14,500.

 

So, Elizabeth White has written a book that is mostly about what you can do in the meantime. And the only real answer is to cut back your standard of living—at least in material ways and consumption—to “small down” as she puts it. This does not mean that your quality of life must go down. It is possible to live more frugally and sustainably, and even to reconnect with what you truly value most in the process. If successfully navigated, this may even prove to be where the “retirement-income crisis and the sustainability movement intersect.”

This book—almost every page—is sprinkled with stories of people in similar circumstances who have reached out to White sharing how they’ve weathered the storm. Many are devastating, but we see also significant hope and dignity in them. Collectively taken, it is the story of a generation coming to terms with a new normal.

White first told her own story in an essay entitled “You Know Her,” which “described what it feels like to land here after a lifetime of hard work.” Her piece eventually landed on the NPR Facebook page, where it was met with a wide outpouring of people sharing their own predicaments. That experience led to her self-publish the first edition of this book, and landed her a spot on the PBS NewsHour with economics correspondent Paul Solman.

White is a veteran of the World Bank who traveled the world for her work, and caught the entrepreneurial bug while getting her MBA at Harvard. Risk is celebrated in our business culture. You have to risk something to make something, they say. Fail fast and often. But nobody tells you what happens if you risk all you have, including your life savings, on a business that fails. Nobody tells you what to do if the worst financial crisis in over half a century hits on the heels of that, and the steady consulting work you’ve been able to put together dries up almost overnight. And nobody, until White, offered much in the way of guidance on how to deal with it when something like that does happen. The first step is to stop beating yourself up about it, to not let the end of a career or a business failure define you.

 

Too often, despite all of the discussion about the systemic factors that have contributed to the looming retirement crisis, we continue to make this crisis personal. We focus mainly on how we screwed up and what we did wrong.

 

55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal is set up as a kind of group workbook. Because you need to talk about what you’re going through, and you probably can’t afford a therapist anymore, White suggests what she calls a “Resilience Circle,” a group of people going through similar circumstances that you can meet with in person or online to reflect on your new reality and how to adapt to it. She suggests you begin with a “Top This” exercise, in which you reveal just how tenuous your financial situation has become—water turned off, electricity cut off, having to ask your grown children for help or a place to crash—writing down the worst you’ve been through, putting it all in a bowl and reading them aloud to make the struggle less opaque, to bring it out into the open and make it less of a personal burden and stigma we hold ourselves. Each chapter ends with some reflections to discuss when you meet with the group.

And then, the book and the groups she suggests you set up are all about finding solutions—mostly personal, but also more systemic possibilities on the horizon, and the systemic changes currently occurring in the American workplace. This is important because it is affecting an entire generation:

 

The truth is, if you’re a boomer-age American, you’ve spent the last three decades dealing with flat or falling wages, disappearing pensions, and steeply rising costs in housing, health care, and education. If that pummeling weren’t bad enough, in 2008 you were hit by the largest economic downturn in decades.

 

And the boomers are just the first generation facing this reality. As White explains:

 

Many of the same structural issues that have adversely affected boomers—[these] disappearing pensions, flat and falling wages, sharply escalating costs in healthcare, housing, and education—are also hurting millennials and Gen Xers.

 

Women face this crisis far more than men (the US Census Bureau number White cites show that 4.4 million women age sixty-five and older live in poverty, compared to just 2.8 million men), and 64 percent of women are forced to file for social security at age 62, which can reduce their benefits by 30 percent, even as they live longer than men and got paid less over the course of their careers, earning “79 cents for every dollar a man earned in 2016.” Other minorities are just as disproportionately affected in other ways—from the amount of retirement savings they’ve been able to accumulate to how well real estate prices have recovered in different neighborhoods, affecting the value of what is most people’s largest investment and nest egg, their homes. Ageism is also a huge concern running throughout the stories of the book, unveiling the discrimination older adults face as they try to find new work in the traditional economy.

White also explores the pieces of the social safety net that do still exist, walking you through options to stay in your home. She explores what will seem like undesirable options to many, such as food stamps and assistance for heating your home, that many more people should consider. She even directs you to the websites to find more information. She talks about how to leverage the gig economy. While it most likely won’t replace the income you’re used to, it is a good way around age discrimination. She discusses how many older Americans are starting their own businesses. She cites numbers showing the conventional wisdom that starting a business is only for 20-somethings as a complete myth, and she talks about the importance of “weak ties” or casual friends and acquaintances, and why they may be a far better help in finding opportunities that your inner circle of close friends. Once you open up and talk about it, once you share your struggle with others, you’ll likely find there are many others in your community going through the same thing:

 

And while it may feel like we’re alone, there are a growing number of organizations, programs, initiatives, allies, and advocates that support a new work imperative for aging Americans.

 

White lists six pages of them here. She provides resources for “age-proofing” our homes, should we choose to age in place—most of which don’t include design features conducive to older age. She lists a veritable cornucopia of resources for house sharing and finding a housemate should you wish to go that route. She explores multigenerational homes, dormitories, and micro-apartments—even a cohousing collective in the Paris suburbs. There are more useful books mentioned than I could keep track of, and the number of websites you’ll be directed to dwarf even the number of books. She talks to a group of women who have relocated to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, because their social security is not enough to live on in the United States. She visits Aldersgate, a higher-end senior community in Charlotte that is reaching out to the East Charlotte community around it, connecting with neighbors, opening an urban farm, and offering support to the lower income communities around them, as well as exploring more affordable pricing option. She explores new forms of senior housing, from tiny homes (“40 percent of current tiny-home owners are over fifty years old”) to retrofitted convents as the number of nuns in America continues to drop (“from a high of 180,000 to under 47,000 today”). Most are still out of the price range of many—if not most—older Americans, but they are interesting initiatives nonetheless that offer options for the future.

I often wonder how it is we’re not all out in the streets in response to such societal challenges, especially the boomer generation that has practice in such movements. And then I remember how hard it can be just to get out of bed in our more difficult moments. And while systemic change is important to push for, it is also true, as White says, that “in the short and medium term, we’re going to have to save ourselves and one another.”

 

As a country, we have achieved longevity by investing tens of billions of dollars in the diagnosis, management, and treatment of disease. And it has paid off. Tens of millions of us will live well into our eighties. But where and under what circumstances? We have prolonged our existence, but have not been as successful investing in the physical infrastructure needed to support our health, emotional well-being, dignity, and independence as we age.

 

“I may be broke,” writes Elizabeth White, “but I am not broken.” Hopefully, this book helps her become less broke, as it generously guides a generation of Americans finding a healthy, sustainable new normal and a better life in their golden years.

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