By Elizabeth White
I know you, I know you,” he says, this man I have never seen before. “Aren’t you that woman who’s …” and his voice trails off. I can see he’s searching for just the right word. “Who’s broke,” I say, holding his gaze. His face lights up. “That’s it, that’s right,” he says,” heartily shaking my hand. “I saw you on TV.”
Being the poster child for broke baby boomers was not on my bucket list. Even now I still cringe when I see some of the interviews I’ve done and what I revealed about myself. This was never supposed to be my story. And until about ten years ago, it wasn’t.
My book, Fifty-five, Unemployed, and Faking Normal (Washington, D.C.: EDWhite, 2016), grew out of an essay I wrote about what it’s like to be jettisoned, without a net, from a “we don’t want you” workforce, to enter the world of formerly and used-to-be and to lose your foothold on the solidly middle-class life you have always known. It was a composite piece that reflected upon my personal experience and the experiences of other women I knew, many former high earners like myself.
As one friend shared, “I feel like a visitor in the land of the poor people and pray I won’t have to take up permanent residency.” In our mid- and late-50s, out of work and on nobody’s short list, my friends and I were in unfamiliar terrain. Only time would tell whether we had hit a speed bump or a landmine.
My essay made its way onto the PBS Facebook page and within three days it had garnered more than 11,000 likes and some 1,000 comments. It was then I realized that my experience and that of my small circle of friends was not unique.
We all know people who have struggled financially, been poor their whole lives and enter old age in dire straits. We talk much less about people who were doing fine until they weren’t, people who had career choices, good jobs and decent incomes, until the wheels came off in their late 40s, 50s or 60s.
In my case, it was a post–Great Recession job loss and money drain from a business venture I loved, but never quite turned the corner, that triggered the downward spiral. For friends of mine, it was thin savings, long-term unemployment, a divorce, a medical diagnosis or all the above that landed them in the same place.
Few of us had pensions and almost no one had managed to set aside the 15 percent to 20 percent of his or her annual salary that financial planners tell us we need to maintain our current standard of living.
Dismal Data: Little to No Retirement Savings
I was astonished when I first studied the data: Nearly a third of Americans ages 55 to 64 have not saved a dime. Even among those who have saved, the median value of their retirement account is about $100,000, and while that’s better than zero, it is hardly enough to cover expenses with life expectancy approaching 80 years. Retirement security is even more precarious if you are a person of color. The majority of black and Hispanic families nearing retirement (ages 56 to 61) have no retirement savings at all.
All of this is in such sharp contrast to the tales of positive aging I read in the media. In my circle there are no cool reinvention stories, no lawyers turned pastry chefs. Nobody I know has bought a condo overseas.
Broke, near broke or cash poor, my friends and I are facing a work-for-life proposition, cobbling together streams of income through short contracts, Airbnb rentals, adjunct professorships and the like. For us older workers, this new “sharing the crumbs” economy can be a mixed bag, often a feast or famine state with long dry spells and always a lot more month at the end of the money.
Tens of millions of baby boomer-age Americans are entering old age in financial jeopardy. And the truth is this is not just some pesky baby boomer problem. Baby boomers are just the first to confront these economic challenges in big numbers. We need to ditch this narrative that pits baby boomers and Millennials against each other. The same structural issues—disappearing pensions, flat and falling wages, and sharply escalating costs in healthcare, housing and education are also hurting Millennials (and Gen Xers).
Meeting the Challenges of Hard Times
Marketers give affluent baby boomers all the attention, but the real story (in terms of the sheer magnitude of the problem) is about broke and near broke baby boomers and tens of millions of younger adults on the same path. I’d love to see an intergenerational coalition that includes ordinary citizens, entrepreneurs, investors, corporate managers and product developers working together to figure out how to serve an ages 50 and older demographic of people who are accustomed to living well, but who are now on a tight budget. What innovative products and services could be developed or adapted to meet this challenge and help older adults remain independent and engaged?
Workshops and conferences should be devoted to figuring this out with affordability and accessibility as guiding principles. Technology will be a powerful tool in helping to create a better old-age experience. But we need affordable solutions: expensive tech toys with eye-popping price tags, out of reach to all but the most affluent people, don’t advance the cause.
And finally, broke does not always mean broken. What helped me during my hardest times was the support of my mother, my daughter and a small group of friends. They were my sanity refuge, the scaffolding that held me up. In my book I call them my Resilience Circle and talk about how to form one. Shame and embarrassment keep many people from talking about their financial woes and the toll these are taking on them. A Resilience Circle can help people to get their mojo back, to make necessary changes and to begin to see a path forward.
Elizabeth White is an aging advocate, consultant and author of Fifty-five, Unemployed and Faking Normal. Follow her on Twitter @55fakingnormal, on Facebook at 55 and faking normal and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.