Two years ago, Elizabeth White hit a wall.
For years she’d earned a six-digit income. Work was easy to find; she has a Master of Business Administration from Harvard and a master’s in international studies from Johns Hopkins University.
But then everything changed. Organizations weren’t responding to her job applications. They weren’t impressed she’d worked for the World Bank and had run her own retail business.
Ms. White exudes energy and grace. She looks much younger than you might expect a person in her early 60s to look. And she is the quintessential “smartest person in the room.”
But White says her qualifications are ignored because “there’s rampant age discrimination.” Meanwhile, “it doesn’t matter how you look because when you apply online ... you can’t hide when you graduated.” Nonetheless, she kept up appearances, didn’t tell her friends she was in trouble, and pretended things were normal – until she couldn’t.
White came out by writing an essay for the public-television website Next Avenue. She wrote about people like herself whose phones don’t “ring with opportunities anymore” and who are struggling just to pay the phone bill.
After an enthusiastic response, and wanting to do more, she wrote a book, published late last year: “Fifty-Five, Unemployed, and Faking Normal.”
“Fifty-Five” compassionately identifies issues that older workers face – issues such as unemployment, job discrimination, and financial insecurity. It gives voice to their stories. Then it suggests steps for restoring what White calls “a richly textured life.”
A key theme is to not be “faking normal.” Another is to realize “we are not alone.... [T]here are millions of us.” Another is to “get rid of the magical thinking” that society is somehow going to provide a solution.
White has many recommendations for older people who aren’t finding work: Be willing to participate in the so-called gig economy. Cobble together multiple income streams. And get off your throne – don’t be snobbish about the work you accept.
Bottom line, it’s important to cultivate “an entrepreneurial mind-set,” which to White means being “open to doing things we’ve never done before.” She did this herself when she examined the skills she had to offer and decided to write her book.
‘Do not give up hope’
Donna Satterthwaite, interim executive director of Senior Service America, an organization that helps older workers with employment needs, says by email: “Her advice is clear and forthright: Avoid denial, reassess reality, adjust to one’s new status, strategize.... Do not give up hope. Instead, take charge of your new reality and learn how to live in your new normal.”
White also packed “Fifty-Five” with lists of resources – organizations offering help with employment and supply issues. Since it’s a self-published, print-on-demand book, she can keep these resources up to date.
Juan Laster embodies a willingness to adapt. A woman in her 60s who has a master’s degree in business education and worked for years in corporate administration, Ms. Laster now juggles part-time jobs. She calls “Fifty-Five” a “survival kit ... a reference book [that] should be in everyone’s back pocket.” She strongly agrees with White’s principle of not “faking normal”: “I’m not here to impress anyone.”
Laster has segued to being a community advocate for seniors. She also organizes offices. One time she even seized the opportunity to clean someone’s home for $200. Then she celebrated with a meal at her favorite restaurant and put the rest of the money in the bank.
A related, basic theme in White’s book is “smalling up” – being willing to “live more frugally and to redefine what is enough.”
Smalling up can mean new approaches to housing, often a person’s largest expense. She suggests living in a smaller home – perhaps even a “tiny house” – sharing a home, or possibly trying a communal living arrangement. In “Fifty-Five,” she recommends asking oneself: “What do you really need to feel deeply grounded and content?”
Tagging along in D.C.
White practices thriftiness herself in Adams Morgan, the now-trendy neighborhood of Washington, D.C., where she’s lived for many years. “Enough” for her includes driving a Fiat the size of a Bobby Car around a neighborhood filled with young professionals driving larger, fancier cars. She also “shop[s] in her closet” – wears the beautiful clothes she bought years ago when earning a generous income.
A visitor to the area recently tagged along for a few days to watch White in action. On the first morning, she drove her Fiat to the local university to meet with appreciative students she’d taught retail marketing to. Though teaching is not well paid, it helps others, and it’s one of White’s income streams.
Next, it was off to the gym at a community center where she works out. It’s grittier than the boutique gyms she used to be able to afford. But it’s clean and bright – and it’s free.
Perhaps most significant, White attended a get-together of older women at The Potter’s House, a funky bookstore and cafe that White calls her “living room.”
A central recommendation White makes is to form “resilience circles” – support groups – specifically for employment and financial challenges. In her book she says, “It’s hard to navigate these waters alone.... Peer-to-peer support can keep you even keeled and open to possibility.”
The group at Potter’s chewed over the difficulties that older women encounter in finding work. Christina, the meeting organizer, commented, “To get a job in D.C., it’s very difficult if you are over 35.”
Christina, who is in her early 50s and didn’t want her real name used because of career concerns, worked for many years as a lobbyist and had no problem getting jobs when she was younger. Circles “help you build that resilience,” she says. They provide ideas and are a place where “we build each other up and remind each other what we are good at.”
“Older workers are overrepresented among the long-term unemployed,” says Laurie McCann, senior attorney with AARP Foundation Litigation. “It takes them much longer to find a job, and more often than not when they do ... it’s for significantly less money than they were making before.”
Bob Harootyan, manager of research at Senior Service America, says by email, “Based on a broad range of statistical data and national surveys, I believe the number of unemployed, underemployed and discouraged older workers who are in financial jeopardy reaches into the millions, including middle-class as well as lower-income older adults.”
Ms. McCann, whose focus is age discrimination, blames stereotyping. “As a society, we need to become as outraged about age discrimination as we [are about] other forms of discrimination,” she says.
How Bruce sees it
Bruce, who asked for his last name to be withheld because of career concerns, was a media writer and producer in New York. “People don’t realize how hard it is ... to deal with incessant rejection,” he says. His friends who are “in the same struggle” reassure each other that “you are the same [competent professional]. Nothing has changed.”
From his perspective, “This is an economic phenomenon [involving] changing technology, changing corporate values ... changes in ethics.” White, he adds, “break[s] new ground.... She gets it.”
White’s own career has morphed into being an advocate and adviser for older workers – along with doing other work that feeds her income stream. She’d also like to collaborate with institutions and companies to create a world that better fits seniors.
“No one expected to be jettisoned out of the workforce 10 years before retirement,” White says. “That is traumatic for people.... This book is an invitation to turn around and look at what’s in front for you.”
How to take action
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Uganda Village Project facilitates community health and well-being in rural Uganda through improved education, among other measures. Take action: Teach safe pregnancy and family planning to 25 women.