By any measure, Elizabeth White has had a stellar career. A graduate of Harvard and Johns Hopkins University, she began her working life at the World Bank, focusing on international development. Then she started her own business, which got its goods into places like Macy’s Herald Square but eventually failed after eight years, taking her savings with it. She was 47.
She took two well-paying consultancies after that, stitching together a six-figure income for seven years until both gigs ended. She found herself unemployed at 55, and unable to find real work – it took her two years to find a new job, which lasted for only two years. Then she was out of work yet again, this time on the edge of 60.
White was on the edge in other ways – financially, emotionally. Eventually, she found a group of friends in the same position and began to open up to them about the realities of being middle-aged, marginally employed, and financially insecure.
Her experience – and that of those like her – inspired her to write “55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal: Your Guide to a Better Life.” In it, she encourages readers to form “Resilience Circles” with people in circumstances like theirs, as she did, and read and discuss the book together – like a “Lean In” group, but for people struggling with age discrimination and other reasons keeping them out of the workplace.
White is part of a larger trend where working until 65 is no longer a guarantee. A recent ProPublica study showed that older workers are increasingly being pushed out of work before they can retire. Half of all workers over 50 are hustled out of their jobs against their will, the study found.
White spoke with the Ladders about her new book, the power of Baby Boomers, and the future of work after 50.
1. On people should anticipate the possibility of being booted out of the workplace 10 years before retirement, and prepare to fill the gap in employment by working a myriad of jobs.
“Yes, in that we are entering a period of financial insecurity.
“Many of us are going to be forced to create what I call an ‘interesting casserole’ of work. Hopefully, it is a casserole that is aligned with your values, and you have different kinds of income streams. For it to really work, it’s about getting your expenses down. I don’t just mean having a budget. Do you really need 4,000 square feet? What do you really need?
“For me, [my casserole] is consulting, it’s speaking, and it’s writing. For somebody else, it might look like something else. I have many friends, woman friends, who have an income stream with Airbnb. Many of them are empty-nesters. If you look at Airbnb’s numbers, the fastest-growing segment is women over 50. And then they might do a little consulting and something else.
“The ‘interesting casserole’ is where I think a lot of people are going to land, and it’s hard to sustain if you have some huge, expensive lifestyle because it’s feast or famine.”
2. On there are many misconceptions about older people who find themselves in this situation.
“We live in a culture where bootstrap ingenuity is prized. The truth is that bootstrap ingenuity is no match for disappearing pensions. It’s no match for flat and falling wages. No match for the escalating cost of healthcare. Your agency and personal will are not going to overcome rampant age discrimination and big global trends in automation and robotics. So this notion that this is all a personal responsibility issue and if you just worked harder is the mythology.
“That said, I’m not saying that everybody could not have saved more. I’m not saying I could not have saved more. I’m saying that when you have this many people who have landed here … There’s something bigger happening.”
3. On out-of-work Boomers have a huge effect on the economy.
“People over 50 are over 50% of the spend on apparel, 50% on trucks and cars, 50% on entertainment. So when you don’t hire people, or hire them in jobs where they are dramatically underemployed, there is a consequence … We are huge drivers in the economy of what we’re spending. I want to see a more muscular conversation about what Boomers contribute and more multigenerational workplaces. I’m not a fan of this false feud between millennials and Boomers – Millennials are our children.”
4. On Find your community …
“When I was going through the worst of it, other friends of mine, we had started to talk. They really provided the scaffolding that we held each other up. We were able to talk candidly. In D.C., nobody’s talking about their financial woes… You get no points talking about that you’re struggling. I want people who are feeling alone, who are feeling this whole shaming-and-blaming thing, and who are leveled by this, to be able to meet and have a place to gain their footing and share resources.”
5. … and let them help.
“I meet a lot of people who are in such pain, who are sort of full up with emotion. And so, even if they get an interview – let’s say, they get called in – when they get there, they’re what I call ‘leaking.’ So the person who is interviewing them may not know what’s going on with them, they just know, ‘I don’t want that in my work environment.’ It’s because they seem a little off, they seem a little intense, they seem a little full of emotion. People don’t want that on their team, they don’t want that on their project. They don’t know what it is.
“And so the other thing that I think the Resilience Circles do is allow people to vent, to kind of dial that [emotion] down a bit, so that when you go into an environment where you need to perform, you’re not bringing all of that.
“I meet people who are in that state all the time. I get to see through our interactions the talent that’s there that we’re not able to access because people don’t have a place where they can see that they’re not the only ones. They’re not by themselves.
“And so my hope with the Resilience Circles is to provide a new frame for people to understanding, which can ultimately be empowering.”