“You know her. She is in your friendship circle, hidden in plain sight. She is 55, broke and tired of trying to keep up appearances. Faking normal is wearing her out.”

So begins a 2016 essay written by Elizabeth White, a former World Bank employee with a Harvard MBA who found herself spiraling toward destitution in her mid-fifties when her business failed. After her essay went viral online, White turned it into a popular TED Talk, and now a book: “55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal: Your Guide to a Better Life.”

Like White, millions of older, educated, previously employed, previously middle-class Americans are surprised to find themselves facing financial insecurity as they approach what should be their retirement years. And most of these people would never dream of talking openly to friends or family about their money troubles, even as maxed-out credit cards and final notices keep them up at night.

“We fake normal as best we can, trying to keep up appearances as the floor collapses underneath us,” White says.

A study by ProPublica and the Urban Institute found that more than half of older workers in the U.S. are pushed out of their jobs before they want to retire. And according to a 2018 Wall Street Journal report, despite our healthy economy, “Americans are reaching retirement age in worse financial shape than the prior generation, for the first time since Harry Truman was president.” From the report:

“In the postwar era, for a while, fixed government and company pensions gave millions a guaranteed income on top of Social Security. An improving economy led to increased wages. Many Americans retired in better shape than their parents. No more. Baby boomers were the first generation of Americans who were encouraged to manage their own retirement savings with 401(k)s and similar vehicles. Many made investing mistakes, didn’t sock enough away or waited too long to start.”

This retirement savings crisis may not end with the boomers. Some of the same economic and demographic forces that created this generation’s financial insecurity — stagnant wages, high healthcare and education costs, disappearing pensions, the shift to 401(k)-type plans — could slam millennials just as hard in a few decades.

To the millions of Americans who are reaching retirement age and facing unexpected financial hardships, White offers this advice:

“We’re going to have to adopt a live-low-to-the-ground mindset, drastically cutting back on our expenses,” she says. “And I don’t mean just living within our means. A lot of people are already doing that. What is called for now is to, in a much deeper way, ask ourselves what it really means to live a life that is not defined by things.”

And it’s important to be a realist, she says. “The normal that we knew is over. In this new place that we are, we’re going to be asked to do things that we don’t want to do. We’re going to be asked to take assignments that we think are beneath our station and our talent and our skill. I have had to get off my throne. Last year, a good friend of mine asked me if I would help her with some organization work. I assumed she meant community organizing along the lines of what President Obama did in Chicago. She meant organizing somebody’s closet. I said, ‘I’m not doing that.’ She said, ‘Get off your throne. Money is green.’ “

This doesn’t mean older Americans should give up on the possibility of meaningful work. White just wants them to think practically — and without shame — about how to pay the bills while they wait for that dream job to come along.

“So if you need to move in with your brother to make ends meet, call him. If you need to take in a boarder to help you pay your mortgage or pay your rent, do it. If you need to get food stamps, get the darn food stamps. …Do what you need to do to go another round. Know that there are millions of us. Come out of the shadows.”

 

Kelli Scott’s email address is kellikscott@gmail.com.