Her public voice began with a 2016 essay, when Harvard MBA and former World Bank employee and retail business CEO Elizabeth White decided to come out of the shadows to describe her post–Great Recession situation of living on the edge of economic survival: the loss of job prospects, the depletion of retirement savings in order to pay bills and make ends meet. In her own words, she was “faking normal,” trying to maintain the appearance of affluence in her 50s, despite her more desperate reality. While dining out with friends, for example, she hoped no one would notice her ordering mineral water instead of a $12 glass of Chardonnay. She detailed other benign deceptions she and friends in similar situations committed out of a need to save face.
The essay struck a nerve. Thousands of people responded to her, sharing similar tales from their lives. A year later, White’s TED talk boosted awareness of her message exponentially (yielding more than 1.5 million views to date). And now she’s expanded her ideas into 55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal, a well-crafted book for midlife and older adults that serves as both a passionate manifesto and realistic roadmap for understanding and surviving the financial downturns that have affected millions of Baby Boomers and will affect millions of members of younger generations to come.
White’s premise is direct and simple:
55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal “aims to unstick us and start us across the bridge to making the life changes we’ll need for a decent third act in the new normal of financial insecurity.…[T]o have a shot at something other than being old and poor in America, we can’t just do what we’ve always done and be what we’ve always been. The world as we knew it has changed forever. And if we want better futures, we’re going to have to change too.”
While White takes a sober approach and pulls no punches about the time and hard work involved in overcoming anxiety and climbing out of economic distress, she is refreshingly upbeat about the goal, posing this challenge: “What if we could take the economic turmoil of forced downsizing and come out better –– not because we accommodated the chaos but because we used the chaos to go where we needed to go in the first place?”
Her practical strategies are based on common-sense: 1) Don’t go it alone; 2) Do what you can to survive while keeping your dreams intact; and 3) “Get off your throne” by lowering your expectations about the income, job title, or perks you deserve. She maps out each strategy in effective ways.
In order to address the isolation one can experience when financially struggling, White creates a social model she calls a Resilience Circle, a support group of fellow travelers who can use her book as a starting point for sharing ideas and sustaining the emotional energy needed to keep going. Each chapter ends with a helpful list of suggested Resilience Circle discussion topics and activities.
And when it comes to surviving while holding on to one’s dreams, White offers the tactic of “smalling up,” which, she explains, is akin to downsizing but with the advantage of embracing a positive, universal goal:
“…[I]f we’re going to have to downsize, why can’t we ‘small up’ and do more with less as a path to a more sustainable way of living?…The economics of aging may well force us in this direction. But isn’t this where we should be heading anyway to secure our futures and those of our children and grandchildren?”
As for getting off one’s throne, White claims that there’s nothing wrong with taking on one or more small or temporary “bridge work” jobs that pay the bills or “living low to the ground” by reducing everyday expenses, shopping for bargains, and reusing and recycling whenever possible.
According to White, adjusting to the new economic reality of aging involves redefining how and where we live, what kind of work we do, and even who we are. It’s an opportunity to reexamine our values and clarify what it takes to maintain a satisfying life according to those values. The greatest message in 55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal is that by doing the hard work of recovery with the support of others, we can appreciate just how adaptable and resilient we are.
And that’s an exciting New Normal all of us can embrace.