A boomer who was 55, unemployed, and faking normal

This is a moving essay about which we debated here at BoomerCafé. Not because it isn’t meaningful, but because it isn’t typical. Or at least that’s what we assumed until we realized, maybe it’s more typical than we think. We spotted it on NextAvenue.org and it’s by Washington DC’s Elizabeth White, now 66, whose book title, Fifty-Five Unemployed and Faking Normal, gives away what it’s about. The question to baby boomers is, could it ever be about you?

You know her.

She is in your friendship circle, hidden in plain sight.

She is 55 — maybe more, maybe less — but broke, and tired of trying to keep up appearances. Faking normal is wearing her out.

To look at her, you wouldn’t know that her electricity was cut off last week for non-payment or that she meets the eligibility requirements for food stamps. Her clothes are still impeccable, bought in the good times when she was still making money.

But if you paid attention, you would see the sadness in her eyes, hear that grace note of panic in her otherwise commanding voice.

These days, she buys the $1.99 10-ounce “trial size” jug of Tide to make ends meet. You didn’t know laundry detergent came in that size.

Elizabeth White talks with PBS NewsHour about the hidden financial plight of many baby boomers and the pressure to act like everything’s okay.

You invite her to the same expensive restaurants the two of you have always enjoyed, but she orders mineral water with a twist of lemon, instead of the $12 glass of Chardonnay. She is frugal in her menu choices, meticulous, counting every penny in her head. She demurs about dividing the table bill evenly to cover desserts, designer coffees, and the second and third glasses of wine she didn’t drink.

She lives without cable, a gym membership, and nail appointments. She’s discovered she can do her own hair.

There are no retirement savings, no nest egg; she exhausted that long ago. There is no expensive condo from which to draw equity and no husband to back her up.

Months of slow pay and no pay have decimated her credit. Bill collectors call constantly, reading verbatim from a script, expressing polite sympathy for her plight… before demanding payment arrangements that she can’t possibly meet.

Friends wonder privately how someone so well educated could be in economic free fall. After all, she is still as talented as ever and smart as a whip. But work is sketchy now, mostly on-and-off consulting gigs. You can’t remember when she had a real job. She has learned how to appear engaged, but her phone doesn’t ring with opportunities anymore.

She doesn’t remember exactly when it stopped.

But she has entered the uncertain world of “formerly” and “used to be” and isn’t sure anymore where she belongs.

What she does know is that dozens of online job applications she’s filled out seem to have disappeared into a black hole. She’s convinced that employers have set their online job recruitment algorithms to reject anyone who graduated before 1995.

She wonders what is to become of her. So far, her health has held up, but her body aches. Or is it her spirit?

Homeless women use to be invisible to her, but she appraises them now, with curious eyes, wondering if their stories started like hers.

Even if you are not poor, exactly, you may still be facing downward mobility and feeling ashamed and embarrassed about it. If so, come on out. Stop faking normal. There are millions of women like us and there is strength in our numbers.

Women nearing retirement are particularly hard hit by America’s retirement income-security crisis. The gender wage disparity gap costs women $431,360 over the course of their lives, according to the Center for American Progress. Add to this shortfall another $304,000 that women forfeit for time off from paid work to tend to parents (according to the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP) and hundreds of thousands more to care for children, and the consequences of spending a life of economic disadvantage becomes clear in lost wages, reduced pension, and Social Security benefits.

The prospect is even worse if you are a woman of color: Today, three in ten single black women over 65 and nearly four in ten older single Hispanic women live in poverty, a rate more than twice that of white women, according to the Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement (WISER).

But if any of us is hiding or in denial about our financial insecurity, we’re not taking the active role we need to navigate this phase of our lives. One action I took that really helped me and gave me both perspective and peace of mind was picking a friend to talk to and totally coming clean about my situation. Turns out, she was broke too, and was as worried about her future as I was about mine. It was such a burden off me to just speak my truth.

For all of us, there are hard choices to make about where we are going to live and how. The good news is that the market is beginning to respond with many more innovative and affordable senior housing and co-housing options to help boomers stay engaged and lead meaningful lives. I expect manufacturers to follow suit with value-engineered products geared to retirees with lower incomes.

So while my new living quarters may be a rental and the size of a postage stamp, it beats being confined to a dim-lit room in some drab building with a weird hospital smell and institutionalized food.

Welcome to the new normal.

[Lizzy White’s contact email is fakingnormal@yahoo.com.]

© Twin Cities Public Television – 2017. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

5 Comments

  1. I love this post. I see myself in these words over and over. I love my postage stamp apartment because I decided to. I made it cute, and appealing, and it feels for all the world like a safe haven. I wear second hand clothes, make one dollar stretch to three, and pat myself on the back for my ingenuity and minimalist contribution to the world. I an not irrelevant, I am a courageous, older woman!

  2. Intentional or not, I find it interesting that BoomerCafe would run Lizzy White’s “Faking normal” piece right after Alan Paul’s piece titled “Retirement? This baby boomer says, Don’t Worry, be Happy”. It demonstrates the wide discrepancies and diverse challenges many of us boomers face when it comes to living out our later years.

    Life is not a straight line, and there is no way to predict its dramatic twists and turns. I wish it were otherwise.

  3. Good points although not exclusive to Baby Boomers. In our parents’ generation there were other secrets as well: domestic violence, child abuse, addiction, the problems that were kept behind closed doors in order to “look normal.” There’s more freedom to disclose them now but of course they’re no less painful.

  4. Experience tells me Lizzie’s story is all too common. I think we are on the brink of a true national disaster as the health of those who are barely scraping by starts to deteriorate. Because the oldest boomers are just now hitting their early 70s, we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg. Many people are quite healthy and relatively strong well into their 70s, but beyond that maintaining peak health gets very dicey.

    The only suggestion I offer to people faced with very limited means is to find others in the same situation and pool your resources. Share food, live together, share help-mates. None of us should be trying to manage life on our own. Going it alone opens the door to loneliness, fear, and want. Lizzie certainly took a positive first step in reaching out to someone else.

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