55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal
Elizabeth White’s book 55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal is an unflinchingly honest, practical, and guardedly hopeful look at options for seniors who are struggling, or may soon be struggling, with all-too-common issues of un- or under-employment, insufficient retirement funds, unaffordable housing, and isolation.
It’s no secret that ageism delineates our workforce. It’s difficult to reach previous earning levels once you’re over 50 and you lose your job. Social Security is the only retirement plan for many baby boomers, and that likely won’t even cover rent. White speaks from firsthand knowledge as a highly educated professional with an enviable resume who found herself unable to get a job after losing her savings in a failed business venture. She acknowledges the denials, the pain, the mistakes, the regrets, the disappointments, and the desperation she went through before reshaping her life on her own terms. She urges others in a similar situation to stop “faking normal,” and share the truth of their circumstances – and then take steps to recover, even, if necessary, to “claw” their way back to a new simplified, healthy normal. She recommends forming “Resilience Circles” as a way to work through the process in supportive group meetings.
Doom and Gloom Mindset is Neither Healthy nor Productive
White cautions that a doom-and-gloom mindset is neither healthy nor productive, yet the myriad statistics and anecdotes she presents are overwhelmingly scary and depressing. Or at least they were to me, as a mid-sixties educated and underemployed female. Even though I am squarely in her target demographic, I don’t feel desperate, invisible, or afraid that I won’t be able to continue to live comfortably. But she also talks about denial, equivalent to faking normal even when our actual standard of living is below – or way below – par. So maybe I’m in denial.
I’ve already pretty much lost it all – in the form of a good house I owned in a high-end suburban neighborhood. I’d lived there for 30-plus years. It was supposed to be my retirement nest egg or a valuable legacy I could pass down to my heirs. The emotional repercussions of losing it were worse than the financial ones. Fortunately I had a job still, a small vacation home out of state, and an immense desire to live a simpler creative life. It’s taken me more than ten years to claw my way back, and I can’t be sure what’s next, but I’m energized and optimistic. Most days. And, probably in denial, but I’m OK for now. More than OK.
White writes about “smalling up,” doing less with more – not just being frugal to the point of depriving yourself of the things that make you happy, but differentiating between wanting and needing. Unquestionably, this is good advice, but I feel like I’ve already checked those boxes.
I buy almost all my clothes and shoes, and many household items, secondhand. I rarely eat out. I repurpose/recycle everything I can. And I try to grow at least some of my own food. I’m still fighting the burden of too much stuff in storage, but I have a plan for purging and downsizing.
The book’s true value for me was in the sections on housing strategies and options for seniors. I will have a hard time aging in place in my current century-old house in a remote rural area, which is not near any of my immediate family. I have a very limited social network here. White addresses issues of social isolation and homes that are not structurally accessible for elderly residents who develop health or mobility problems. She has done an extraordinarily impressive amount of research into various types of senior housing options in all price ranges – tiny homes, RV parks, co-housing, multigenerational housing, reverse mortgages, renting out rooms to boarders, moving in with family, and moving out of the U.S. altogether. In particular, for me, her in-depth descriptions of innovative senior communities across the country, and also her exploration into the potential of tiny homes to serve our needs, was eye-opening. For years I’ve been fascinated by the prospect of building a tiny home, but it was always an unattainable dream. As a direct result of the book, I have been inspired to learn more, look into financing solutions, reach out to thought leaders in the industry, and find opportunities to get involved beyond a personal DIY construction project.
Honesty and Practical Advice
White’s honesty and practical advice (“get off your throne,” do “bridge work” if you have to, get food stamps/SNAP if you’re eligible and in need), tempered with sincere compassion by encouraging us to be kind to ourselves in spite of our “wouldas, couldas, shouldas,” make this book unique and valuable. Her thorough research with detailed lists of services and resources makes it a go-to, must-have guidebook for anyone now or soon to be a senior dealing with the stress of an inadequate safety net in the face of an uncertain future. I’m not the type to pencil notes in margins or earmark pages. In reading White’s book, I did both. I thought initially I’d pass it on to a friend after a cursory read. I’ll buy my friend another copy. I’m keeping mine for future reference.
This was written by Adele Field. Adele is a writing and marketing communications professional with a background in publishing and PR. She moved from Los Angeles to a family property in rural Montana in search of a healthier, more affordable, more authentic life. While personal creative projects such as managing a community garden and writing a comedy podcast feed her soul, and help counter the isolation of her remote location, Adele is patching together a living in the gig economy. She currently telecommutes with an offshore medical-legal documents company, manages email campaigns and websites for small businesses, and edits books and proposals for emerging authors.