Four years ago, Elizabeth White, then 62, faced one of the hardest moments of her life. What should have been a fabulous highlight — striding on to the TED Talk stage, dressed in a sunshine-yellow dress — was actually a moment she’d avoided for years. White was there to step out from behind the shame she had been carrying and share her story of “faking normal” – acting as if everything was just fine when in fact, she was dealing with the seeming end of her six-figure-salaried career. She began:
“You know me. I am in your friendship circle, hidden in plain sight…
To look at me, you would not know that my electricity was cut off last week for nonpayment or that I meet the eligibility requirements for food stamps.
But if you paid attention, you would see that sadness in my eyes, hear that hint of fear in my otherwise self-assured voice.”
White’s revelatory tale of losing her financial footing at midlife struck a chord; her talk has since racked up over two million views as others in her secret club were drawn to her story.
How the Salary Slide Started
Before the recession of 2008, White had never had trouble finding work. With a Harvard MBA, she was employed by the World Bank for over a decade. Her network was so tight, and she heard about job opportunities before they were posted. But then, in 2009, when she was 55, her two high-profile, high-paying consulting gigs evaporated. “I was sure I’d find another good job very, very soon,” she says. She pulled out all the stops on connecting, applying for positions, and following up – nada. As a Black woman, she was accustomed to racism and sexism – but ageism was a new and unyielding foe.
According to a ProPublica and Urban Institute 2018 study, more than half of workers over 50 will be fired or pushed out of their jobs, likely at least partly because of their age. And of those who lose their place on the job ladder, only one in 10 find work at their previous salary again.
White said her drop in income was “sudden and dramatic” and resulted in her taking steps she never dreamed would be part of her life experience: fighting for forbearance on her mortgage payments, buying in bulk at Costco, and ultimately using SNAP (aka food stamps), which she redeemed at a supermarket miles from her home, out of fear of running into anyone she knew.
Today, the COVID-19 pandemic is intensifying the incredible shrinking careers of those over 50, who are losing their livelihoods more frequently than younger workers. Michael Weber, Ph.D., a University of Chicago professor who co-authored a recent study, found that older workers were increasingly slip-sliding out of the labor force as the pandemic hit in February of 2020, and noted that it’s “very unlikely” that this will turn around, even when the yearned-for “new normal” arrives.
White’s salvation during those devastating days was that she had company.
“A friend of mine – an Emmy-award-winning world traveler – was dealing with the same situation. We once sobbed on the phone for hours, asking ‘How did we get here?’”
After that cleansing cry-a-thon, White published the essay “You Know Her,” which described what she was living through. She insisted a stock image accompany it, not her own photo. “That’s how much I didn’t want to be seen or known,” she says.
The essay struck a chord and racked up the views. She turned it into a book and, ultimately, the very public TED Talk, which finally led White to understand that telling the truth about the reality of a downsized midlife would be her new passion.
Here, she shares the five best lessons she learned about wrangling cash and career if you’re facing a job loss:
- Don’t Wait; Take Action “Downsize drastically at the earliest possible moment,” says White. She suggests scouring your credit-card statements for recurring charges (fancy streaming services, memberships) as well as considering if you should take in a roommate, move to a less expensive place, or bond with friends and create a coliving situation. White took in a housemate to generate income, admitting that once this had once been a horrifying idea to her. Now she says it led to “awareness and awakening”: She enjoyed the intellectual stimulation and the company when a local law student joined the household.
- Focus on Creating a Rich and Rewarding Life (on Less) White came to see her new lifestyle as “Smalling Up,” her term for a pragmatic yet joyful approach to embracing aging and simplicity. “The focus is not just ‘What do I need to survive,’ ” she says, “but also ‘Can I have a richly textured life on a modest income?’ And the answer is yes. Can I focus on what makes me feel grounded and content? Again, yes.” Specifics? White admits going on food stamps for a brief period of time hurt her ego at first, but she says cooking became a fun, creative pastime for her versus her previous eating-out norm. She believes finding creative outlets is key: “One friend of mine says gardening is, for her, like church,” says White, who believes “we each need something meditative but not expensive in our lives” to provide daily comfort. More examples: Smalling up means instead of having $20 cocktails at the newest restaurant, sitting on the porch with friends, accompanied by some Trader Joe’s wine and some savory popcorn. It means instead of hiring someone to clear out the garage, offering friends pizza and beer to come over and help get it done.
- Reframe Your Job Search If juicy, high-salary jobs seem to be off the table, White recommends a fresh approach, re-focusing a job search on the skills you possess and the experiences that feed your spirit. “I jotted down my past positions and projects and noted what I loved and hated about each,” she says. “That helped me see that writing was a clear strength of mine and something I enjoyed, and also that I was comfortable with a good degree of solitude as I worked.” She also suggests tapping into envy. “Knowing what you covet in someone else’s job can be a good thing, a tool,” White says. “For instance, a friend envied someone who worked on a cruise ship. It wasn’t that she actually wanted to be on a boat, but the sense of adventure and new places appealed to her. That guided her search.”
- Assemble a “Casserole” of Work Multiple income streams can become the perfect way to make ends meet, says White. “At this stage, my approach is to create a casserole of interesting work. For me, this means some writing for money, some speaking for money, and soon, I hope, working with college students – I have done that and enjoyed that before,” she says. “I will never make the hourly fee I used to command, which was hard to wrap my brain around, but a friend helped me see the non-dollar value to these opportunities. For instance, a consulting project at a lower rate could get me talking to new people and learning different software, both of which have future value.” She also advises looking for part-time and work-from-home gigs on sites like Fiverr (an online marketplace for freelance services). This kind of job may not be a spirit-soaring endeavor, but it can fill the income gaps.
- Create Your Resilience Circle Uncovering new income streams is a key priority, but finding emotional equilibrium is equally important, says White, who credits her “resilience circle” — a squad of folks, friends and otherwise, who are making similar transitions — with saving her sanity. “You can’t bottle all of this energy up [inside you] or it will come leaking out,” she says. “You need to vent and connect.” It’s all about having a safe space to share feelings of sadness, commune, and talk about new opportunities. A resilience circle, White says, helps us “acknowledge the profound loss of not having the life you thought you’d have at this stage. We need to mourn the door that closed behind us before we can turn around and open new doors. Your group will allow you to put down the armor of ‘faking normal,’ help you grieve, and then move forward with you as you explore the new reality.” And, importantly, they’ll be there to celebrate with you the new victories you will find along the way, knowing just how much it took to get there.
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