Aging And Options

Elizabeth White has a stellar resume, tremendous writing skills, and an important story to tell. A well-traveled army child attuned to the importance of education, White attended Oberlin as an undergraduate, majoring in political science. She went on to earn an MBA from Harvard and a Masters in International Studies from Johns Hopkins University. Early in her career she worked at the World Bank, becoming an expert in economic development. White is an entrepreneur, though, and she courageously started her own business, a number of home decorating stores. The business grew, but not without all the challenges of expansion and cash flow, and after eight years it went belly up. White, at the age of 47, needed a job. Consultancies brought in money – she was well-connected, well-known, effective and well-respected – but no long-term situation took hold. The consultancies ended during the financial crisis of 2008-2009. By her early 60s, White’s finances were exhausted. She was also, quite understandably, feeling depressed – underemployed with lots of abilities and skills.

She decided to write an essay, “You Know Her,” which was widely read and picked up by the media. The piece was about what it felt like to have no job after a lifetime of career successes. More and more people reached out to White, describing their own stories of middle class successes followed by unemployment. Many highly-educated, smart and hard-working once-thriving professionals have found themselves in similar situations. White stressed that she and they are people you know, still well dressed (though their clothes may be old), and well educated. You would never suspect that they depend upon food stamps (SNAP), are hungry from skimping on meals, and no retirement savings. It is a special kind of poverty and with it comes shame and little support. The outpouring led White to write a book, give a TED talk, and become an expert on the subject. 55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal: Your Guide To A Better Retirement Life is the book anchoring all of these efforts. It is a most interesting and eye-opening resource, a book that makes one think about our economy and safety nets.

White explains her story and those of many others in the book. She also brings in data, noting that the gap between American’s savings and retirement needs (in 2016) stood at more than 4 trillion dollars. It is worse today. More than a third of all Americans have no retirement savings at all. The median value of retirement accounts for those ages 56-61 was $25,000 when the book was published. The data now is better, but still indicates massive gaps for those in their 50s and 60s. White stresses, repeatedly and accurately, that blaming the retiree is neither fair nor appropriate. For many Americans, hard work simply was not and is not enough to fund a comfortable retirement. Moreover, the middle-age often face extraordinary difficulty in finding work.

Mixing common sense observations with guidance from financial experts, White walks the reader through strategies, tactics and big-picture explanations of personal finance and economic policy. She notes the difficulty of relying so heavily on self-funded retirement, the challenges in particular women face, and the improbability of relying upon the market to offer reasonable employment and returns on investment. White emphasizing ways to rethink one’s situation, finding ways to live comfortably while uncomfortable. She is outstanding in cheerfully encouraging readers to engage with their situation and to take advantage of resources. Central are two key factors: income and housing. Certainty with those means much more is possible. 55, Underemployed and Faking Normal is chock-full of links and suggestions, ranging from small-bore to living abroad.

There is much to mull over in White’s book, from the personal to the institutional. As an educator, one of my key takeaways was the little that I am aware of that higher education does to prepare people for these challenges or to help those who are in it. We are focused, understandably, on those coming out of high school and at the graduate level, for those looking for career advancement. I would posit that our programs and positioning is not strong when it comes to helping those in middle-age or close to retirement develop the skills and earn the credentials for employment into early retirement. Nor do we necessarily consider ourselves a resource, save for some ambitious continuing education and workforce programs. 55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal provides useful help and gives us much to ponder.

David Potash

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