Episode #109 – Elizabeth White, author of Fifty-Five, Underemployed, and Faking Normal: Your Guide to a Better Life shares the experiences that led her to write her book.
Elizabeth White is an author and aging solutions advocate for older adults facing uncertain work and financial insecurity. Most recently, she served as a special advisor to the Executive Director of Senior Service America. Before joining SSA, she was the Chief Operating Officer of a mid-size nonprofit focused on improving economic conditions in Africa. She is also an entrepreneur, having co-founded and led a chain of decorative home stores in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and New York. She began her career in international development at the World Bank. Ms. White earned an MBA from Harvard Business School, a Master’s in International Studies from Johns Hopkins University, and a BS in Political Science from Oberlin College. A self-described Army brat, she grew up in various countries in Europe and North Africa. She resides in Washington, D.C., with her daughter and grandson. Elizabeth has a compelling story to tell that will resonate with many of you.
[1:04] Marc welcomes you to Episode 109 of the Repurpose Your Career podcast. 2018 was a year of disruption and clarification for Marc personally and regarding where he wants to take his business and this podcast. Marc will be making some changes to Career Pivot and to the Repurpose Your Career podcast in the very near future.
[1:43] In next week’s podcast, Marc will review the results of the 2018 Repurpose Your Career Podcast Survey and the changes he will be making. Almost 60 people provided their input. Marc says thank you. That is double the number of participants over the previous year. The downloads have also doubled or tripled.
[2:04] This week, after this episode is published, Marc will publish a Career Pivot blog reader survey and discuss how Career Pivot will evolve in the coming year. If you actively read the Career Pivot blog, please take a moment and take the survey.
[2:21] Marc is recording this intro on New Year’s Day, 2019. Marc and his wife have permanently relocated to Ajijic, Mexico. Their Austin condo has been rented. The Millers have greatly simplified their lives and drastically reduced their expenses, all while improving their mental and physical health.
[2:48] Looking forward 18 months ago, this is not what the Millers would have expected. Marc will share more on that, next week.
[3:00] This week, Marc has a great interview with Elizabeth White, author of Fifty-Five, Underemployed, and Faking Normal: Your Guide to a Better Life. Marc shares her bio.
Now on to the podcast…
[4:24] Marc will be publishing two separate book reviews of Elizabeth’s book in the coming weeks, written by two members of the Career Pivot Community. One, to be published on January 7, almost simultaneously with the podcast and the other will publish in a few weeks. The book’s official release date is January 8, 2019.
[4:49] Marc especially loved Elizabeth White’s story about her relationship with Elijah, and how that relationship gave her perspective. Marc hopes you will enjoy this interview and pick up a copy of her book.
[5:04] Marc welcomes Elizabeth White to the podcast and invites her to share her compelling story.
[5:24] No one aspires to be the poster child for ‘Broke and Near-broke Boulevard.’ Elizabeth landed there, as many people do, through an event. For some, it could be job loss, medical diagnosis, divorce, or something that sets a ‘before-X’ and ‘after-X’ mark in your life.
[6:18] During the Great Recession, Elizabeth lost two really good consultancies within six months. Elizabeth was in her mid-fifties with a great employment and education background, but her phone never rang. She used to have a network that would let her hear about jobs before they posted but most of her network was retired.
[7:30] Elizabeth wrote an essay describing what it felt like to land there, going from choice of careers to downward mobility. Weeks turned into months and months turned into years where she was getting little, short assignments, but nothing near earning what she was accustomed to earning.
[8:08] Elizabeth started to notice that friends were going through the same experience and they talked with each other. The essay she wrote talked about what it was like to be part of the ‘formerly’ and ‘used to be.’ Elizabeth sent it around and it made its way onto the PBS Facebook page. Within three days it had 11K likes and 1K comments.
[8:46] The comments were from people saying, this is my story, my husband’s story or my daughter’s story. How come we’re not having this conversation? Elizabeth read every comment and she was astonished at the universal reach of her story.
[9:08] Elizabeth had the background to look at the data. She was shocked at the magnitude of the retirement income crisis. We’re not talking about it. People sent her long emails messages with story after story of older people who felt like they had done everything right, got jettisoned from the workforce, and could not get back in.
[10:05] Elizabeth met with some people who were in the D.C. area or were passing through. Some became friends. Elizabeth started to look more into what was happening to people. She couldn’t find the book that she wanted to read. She didn’t want a dense, scholarly tome but a story from somebody who was having this lived experience.
[10:44] Elizabeth wrote her book in the model of standing at her back fence, talking to her neighbor about what it means to land here. She understood that the cavalry was not coming and there would be no big rescue to address these millions of people who landed there.
[11:14] The median savings for near-retirees 55 to 64 is $15,000. The middle 40% of earners in that category have $60,000 saved. People talk about the longevity bonus, which is that people in good health in their early 60s have easily another 20 years of life. $15K to $60K doesn’t stretch to cover for 20 years.
[12:10] Economist Teresa Ghilarducci says 40% of middle-class near-retirees are looking at poverty and near-poverty conditions in old age. These are not irresponsible ‘bad apples’ who’ve landed here. These are not the marginalized, chronic poor. These are people who are OK and are now looking at downward mobility.
[12:59] Boomers do not have pensions. Boomers are in an ‘I don’t want you’ job market. Boomers are looking at escalating costs in housing and healthcare and facing $1.5 trillion in education debt.
[13:24] So, why is all the conversation around retirement ‘happy talk’? We hear cool reinvention stories when the truth is that millions of people are trying to figure out how they are going to make ends connect to support themselves over the next 20 years.
[14:03] Marc came up with ‘career pivot’ because you don’t go from being an engineer to a pastry chef. You make incremental changes. Marc formed his online community for everyone who feels alone in their circumstances. Boomers were raised not to talk about employment. When they graduated, if they couldn’t get a job, they were ‘screwups.’
[14:51] Elizabeth talks about ‘resilience circles’ as she mentions in her book. What saved her, during the worst part of it, was having a small group of people she could tell the truth to, and not fake normal. She had one friend with whom she would trade $300 back and forth when she or her friend had the need.
[15:39] Elizabeth and her friend would play a game of ‘top this,’ comparing their money woes. The worst tale of woe won. Elizabeth appreciated having someone to listen to her difficulties. A group started meeting, not only to share stories but also to share information about community and agency resources.
[17:04] A resilience circle helps you not to be alone. When you face burdens alone, you’ll get ‘full up’ of emotion. If you don’t have a circle to share it with first, that emotion will leak out of you in a job interview or a meeting about an opportunity and the person interviewing you will sense there is something there that they don’t want on their team.
[18:01] The resilience circle allows you to vent and get some of your frustration and upset out of your system so you don’t leak it where it’s not appropriate to leak it.
[18:21] Elizabeth suggests that if you are not comfortable announcing to your friendship circle that you are in this situation, look for a nearby library that could work with you to organize a community resilience circle. Or see if your church has a group that is getting out of debt, or setting financial goals together.
[19:37] Elizabeth says, you’re going to have some bad days. You’re going to feel despair. You’re going to have some people that you thought were going to help you, not help you and it’s going to rock you.
[20:01] When you’ve lost confidence, you’ll need someone to remind you who you are, what you know, and what you can bring. You’re not going to always be able to pull that out of yourself. In this period, when you are without a map and without a net, you are going to need old-school community.
[20:47] Elizabeth has some great stories. She talks about her story of Elijah that she included in the book. She had coffee with him the day of this interview. She had seen him for years around town. He is always barefoot, except for flip-flops he wears when he goes into shops. He always wears cut-off jeans.
[22:01] Elizabeth wanted to know his story. In a park she found him and they started a conversation. Elijah suggested they get together and Elizabeth was intrigued. She suggested The Potter’s House. What Elizabeth liked was his freedom from striving. He heard Elizabeth’s story about her rough stretch and gave her a ‘soft place to land.’
[23:52] Elizabeth and Elijah started meeting regularly. Elijah could ‘go off the grid’ in his ideas. Elizabeth will say, “Elijah, I can’t go with you there,’ and he accepts that. Mostly, he’s right there with her.
[24:47] In a rough period, Elizabeth needed to borrow from him. She was telling her situation and he told her he was in a position to help. She borrowed $2,500, feeling a combination of gratitude and shame. Looking at him, he was not a guy who could help.
[25:29] Her shame came from realizing that for most of her life, she had been in a position where she could help. She thought of the people she had looked at without seeing, such as a friend eating at a restaurant with her, not being able to afford more than a soup and a starter, putting $7 of gas in their SUV or going without a haircut.
[26:35] Elizabeth thought of the times she could have easily picked up their meal and didn’t offer.
[26:46] Elijah has Veteran’s benefits and he is not homeless but he lives very modestly and spends no money on clothes. He came to her mother’s family Christmas dinner in Bermuda shorts, a shirt, and sandals. He was welcomed there. Elizabeth meets him for a couple of hours close to once a month or six weeks.
[29:07] Marc suggests that Elijah is one of the people who doesn’t judge Elizabeth and she doesn’t judge him. Marc talks about Making Stuff Up disorder. Elizabeth felt ‘seen,’ not for her credentials or her successes but for herself.
[30:15] Elizabeth shares about the holiday season where there are expectations about things you would do, or donate to, or how much a dinner with friends will cost. It can be a minefield. It is exhausting to evaluate everything against its affordability. She visited a friend recently and they just sat together for six hours. She fell asleep on her couch.
[32:00] Elizabeth had a green apple and her friend had some nut spread and a bottle of wine and they shared it and watched a movie. It was comforting for them to know each other’s ‘walk she’s on.’ Elizabeth has a few friends who are ‘right here’ where she is. They have become an extended resilience circle.
[32:35] Every now and then you will not be included in something because everyone knows you cannot afford it. She doesn’t have words to describe how that feels. You don’t feel sorry for yourself and you don’t want them to feel sorry for you. Elizabeth lost her mother this year, so she is a little more sensitive to things.
[34:27] Maybe you used to be able to cover an ice cream cone for your grandchild or take them to a movie but now you have to ask your son or daughter to pay for it; maybe you cannot help with your mother’s nursing home expenses. The ‘money piece’ is harder during the holiday season.
[35:08] Marc frustrates people who want to know what to get him for Christmas. Nothing — he is done accumulating stuff! In moving to Mexico he just got rid of all of it! His self-worth is not related to the stuff he has.
[35:44] In the second half of Elizabeth’s book she talks a lot about different ways of living in the second half of life, from health to living arrangements, to living more affordably into our nineties. Marc asks Elizabeth to share some thoughts.
[36:08] While Elizabeth was writing, a friend, doing her hair, told her the book better not be a talkathon! She told her to include information and resources. Elizabeth wanted to make sure that this book was chock-a-block full of resources.
[36:39] The biggest expenditure for most of us, after healthcare, is housing. After housing, many people can ‘extreme coupon it’ the rest of the way. So Elizabeth covers housing options, from tiny houses, co-housing, other shared housing, multi-generational housing, to moving to Mexico where they could live on their Social Security income.
[37:45] Choosing housing is a process of determining your space needs. Can you keep up your current home or is it time to consider other options? A lot of Boomers are living by themselves and are isolated. Maybe, to make ends meet, more of us are going to have to start thinking about living together.
[38:57] Elizabeth has included a lot of resources about home sharing, including security checks and credit checks.
[39:55] In some ways, the book wrote itself. It was her conversations with lots of people who have landed where she’s landed, and how they improvised and figured it out. They shared their experiences of flourishing and floundering. Boomers are the first generation that will live this long lifespan, both healthy and active.
[40:36] There are no rules, role models, or roadmaps, yet for how to make the money stretch. There are no policies or supportive networks, yet. We are figuring this out as we go along. What can we learn from each other? The government’s not doing a lot.
[40:56] How are we, who are living this, making this work on housing, on income, on how we navigate with our friends and family?
[41:08] Marc says, you are not going to do this alone. You are not alone. Yes, we are making this stuff up as we go along. We’re improvising.
[41:25] Marc just finished reading Elizabeth’s book and there are some great stories in it. It officially comes out on January 8, 2019. It will be available on Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Elizabeth’s contact information is in the back of the book. She likes to hear from people. Also, reach Elizabeth at FakingNormal@Yahoo.com.
[42:33] Through this writing process, Elizabeth has made some very good friends who reached out to her. Elizabeth has formed ‘a family’ and she wants you to form a family of support, as well. This book is a tool to help you do that.
[43:07] Marc thanks Elizabeth for being on the Repurpose Your Career podcast. Marc hopes you will consider getting her book and also passing it along to a friend.
[43:31] Susan Lahey and Marc are working on the next edition of Repurpose Your Career, and Marc is looking for your help. Marc is forming a release team of readers who will get access to pre-release chapters of the book to provide feedback.
[43:45] By the time this podcast episode is published, Marc will have released the first chapter to the release team. You can be part of this team by going to CareerPivot.com/RYCTeam where you can sign up.
[44:03] When you sign up, you’ll receive the pre-release versions of chapters when they become available. What Marc asks in return is that you provide feedback and be prepared to write a review on Amazon.com when the book is released.
[44:17] Marc and Susan are adding around eight new chapters to the book and re-writing several others. Marc will release a new pre-release chapter on the podcast and to the team every few months.
[44:34] The CareerPivot.com/Community website has become a valuable resource for almost 50 members who are participating in the Beta phase of this project. Marc is now recruiting members for the next cohort.
[44:46] If you are interested in the endeavor and would like to be put on the waiting list, please go to CareerPivot.com/Community. When you sign up you’ll receive information about the community as it evolves. Those in the initial cohorts will get to set the direction for this endeavor. This is a paid membership community with special content.
[45:19] Marc invites you to connect with him on LinkedIn.com/in/mrmiller. Just include in the connection request that you listen to this podcast. You can also look for Career Pivot on Facebook, LinkedIn, or @CareerPivot on Twitter.
[45:48] Please come back next week, when Marc will review the podcast listeners’ survey and what he will be changing in the coming year.
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