55 And Faking Normal: An Ongoing Conversation With Elizabeth White

I first learned about Elizabeth White when I read “Unemployed, 55 and Faking Normal,” an article she wrote for NextAvenue using the same say-it-all title as her self-published book. As White says to pretty much anyone who will listen, it’s time for millions of people to go public about their financial struggles at a time when they are expected to be ticking off items on their bucket list, and yes, having encore careers about something bigger than themselves.

“No one I knew was traveling the world,” White told me. “If the only models are those who have the means, access and resources, then what does purpose and meaning look like for the majority who don’t have that? People are grieving and scared about what’s happened, but in this climate now, any kind of failure brands you as a loser.”

Any time I talk about the encore movement and the power of older people to be change agents, people ask about how to marry the idea of purpose and impact with making a living. So I know White’s work hits a nerve. It certainly speaks to me.

Since her book came out, White has had a TEDx talk with more than 100,000 views and three appearances on the PBS NewsHour (most recent here). She’s become a public voice and a counselor for the millions of midlifers who relate to the sense of shame and fear she’s identified. In this new work, she has clearly found her own purpose and impact.

White and I were introduced about six months ago and have had an ongoing conversation via telephone, social media and email ever since. Below is an edited version of these conversations.

You talk about “opening up the kimono” and having honest conversations about how hard this life stage is for the millions who haven’t saved enough for retirement. Why is that kind of honesty important?

All of this pretending to be all right when we’re not is just crazy making. Many of us in our fifties, sixties and beyond put on a brave face because we think we’re the only ones facing these life-altering financial challenges — when, in fact, there are millions of us. The media likes these cheery midlife reinvention stories. All of this positive-aging happy-talk keeps people in the closet.

The truth is most of us just don’t know any lawyers-turned-pastry chefs. A lot of the people we know are looking at downward mobility and a work-for-life proposition. But we’re not talking about it or what our real options are going forward. Shame keeps us silent and isolated. It also disempowers. And we can’t begin to address what we don’t acknowledge. That’s why honest conversations are so important.

Read more at MidcenturyModern.