55, Unemployed, and Faking Normal

55, unemployed and faking normal: One woman’s story of barely scraping by

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now our economics correspondent Paul Solman takes a look at what has become the new normal for many members of the aging middle class: financial fragility.

It’s part of his weekly series, Making Sense, which airs Thursdays on the “NewsHour.”

ELIZABETH WHITE, Author, “Fifty-Five, Unemployed and Faking Normal”: Everybody is pretending.

PAUL SOLMAN: And that’s why you call the book “Faking Normal”?

ELIZABETH WHITE: Right, because there’s a lot of pressure to seem like you are doing well.

PAUL SOLMAN: Elizabeth White is not doing terribly well, as she painfully chronicles in the book she’s just self-published, “Fifty-Five Unemployed and Faking Normal.”

White’s been on the edge of the financial cliff for years, even though you would never know it from how she looks or the Washington, D.C., townhouse she bought years ago, one she couldn’t even dream of renting today.

But you haven’t been in a situation where you literally couldn’t afford whatever it is, the condo fee, or?

ELIZABETH WHITE: Oh, absolutely, I have. I right now have to park outside because I’m in arrears on the condo fee, right now.

PAUL SOLMAN: And she’s refinanced to the hilt, taken in a boarder.

Well, you haven’t used food stamps.

ELIZABETH WHITE: But I have. I have had to.

PAUL SOLMAN: It’s been quite a comeuppance for someone with her background.

ELIZABETH WHITE: I have a bachelor’s from Oberlin. I have a master’s in international studies from Johns Hopkins. I have a Harvard MBA, worked at the World Bank, came in through a program where they recruited 5,000 people. They took two Americans out of that 25. I was one of the Americans.

PAUL SOLMAN: But, ultimately, White decided to leave the bank to start her own business.

ELIZABETH WHITE: I had a chain of stores, of decorative home stores.

PAUL SOLMAN: Really?

ELIZABETH WHITE: Yes.

I sold some of the things you see here, African-inspired products. I realized that there was an African-American market that wanted things in their home that reflected heritage and culture. If you wanted to give your little girl a black Raggedy Ann doll, you couldn’t easily find it.

So I just curated that from all over. So, I then bet the ranch that I could get this going. So, I took a lot of my — not all of it, but I took a big chunk of my World Bank money to sort of fund this.

PAUL SOLMAN: Retirement savings.

ELIZABETH WHITE: Savings. But it wasn’t going — it was doing well, but I couldn’t see — my vendors of artisan producers were not going to be able to blow this out into a national chain, were already struggling with volume.

PAUL SOLMAN: Did you sell your stores?

ELIZABETH WHITE: No. Closed it in the end. Just didn’t — didn’t work.

PAUL SOLMAN: But steady consulting work allowed White to maintain an upper-middle class lifestyle for awhile, until the crash of ’08.

ELIZABETH WHITE: Within six months, I went from, you know, probably close to 200?

PAUL SOLMAN: Thousand dollars a year.

ELIZABETH WHITE: Right, to zero.

PAUL SOLMAN: And after that, the jobs of the past were nowhere to be found.

ELIZABETH WHITE: This is, to me, where the age discrimination piece happens. I find it much harder at this phase of life to get hired than I did earlier.

PAUL SOLMAN: But you look so young. And I’m not just saying that to, you know, flatter you or something. I mean, you surely can pass now — you’re 62 or something?

ELIZABETH WHITE: Three.

PAUL SOLMAN: Sixty-three. And you could pass for your 50s, easily, mid-50s, early 50s, right?

ELIZABETH WHITE: Early 50s is not considered young in the workplace.

PAUL SOLMAN: No, it’s not, as we learned in an interview with economist Teresa Ghilarducci, citing a study by the New York Federal Reserve.

TERESA GHILARDUCCI, The New School for Social Research: From 45 to 55, wages decrease by 9 percent, from 55 to 65, another 9 percent. So this age earning profile, where you kind of peak and then it flattens out and falls, that age of peaking is a lot younger than we ever thought.

PAUL SOLMAN: And that corresponds to age discrimination as measured in economic experiments by the likes of Joanna Lahey, who sent fake resumes to employers. The red dots show where on the resumes H.R. managers looked, and for how long.

And when does age discrimination start?

JOANNA LAHEY: Immediately. It starts at age 35.

PAUL SOLMAN: Really?

JOANNA LAHEY: Yes. It’s a pretty steady process.

PAUL SOLMAN: And it’s women more than men?

JOANNA LAHEY: It’s definitely women more than men.

PAUL SOLMAN: No wonder career coaches tell you to wipe the dates off your C.V., but, says White:

ELIZABETH WHITE: When they then ask you to fill out the application that’s all algorithm-driven, you cannot leave off when you graduated from college. And once you put that date in there…

PAUL SOLMAN: Then it’s…

ELIZABETH WHITE: They know. Now, as you get older, your network also is not what it used to be.

PAUL SOLMAN: Because they’re losing their jobs?

ELIZABETH WHITE: They’re losing their jobs. They are retiring. They’re not hearing about things. They’re winding down. People have died.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, White has been scraping by with scattered freelance gigs.

ELIZABETH WHITE: It’s sort of bits and pieces that allow me to cobble together income.

PAUL SOLMAN: But nowhere near the income of the past?

ELIZABETH WHITE: No, no.

PAUL SOLMAN: Not even close.

ELIZABETH WHITE: No. I mean, again, I have years of, you know, under $30,000.

PAUL SOLMAN: Help has come from unexpected sources, like neighborhood free spirit Elijah, a clothing minimalist.

ELIZABETH WHITE: I was getting on the far side of where my mortgage company was getting, like, serious with me.

PAUL SOLMAN: Because you were behind in your payments.

ELIZABETH WHITE: Behind. He just said, Lizzy, I will do it. I can do it.

PAUL SOLMAN: But I will do it, meaning, I will make up the difference.

ELIZABETH WHITE: Yes, I will do it.

PAUL SOLMAN: I will pay — he will pay your mortgage?

ELIZABETH WHITE: Right.

So, this is my Elijah. It’s my Elijah, yes.

MAN: I’m the people’s Elijah.

PAUL SOLMAN: The Vietnam vet gets about $900 in monthly benefits, saves almost half.

MAN: I’m not a things person. How much money do you think I’m spending on my attire, OK?

ELIZABETH WHITE: As he says, I have a few friends like you who are in the stuff world, is what he calls, and you’re always getting into some kind of mishap.

PAUL SOLMAN: Grateful to get by with a little help from her friends. White was also embarrassed.

ELIZABETH WHITE: You’re the loser. You know? How can you have this kind of background and be landing here?

PAUL SOLMAN: There must be something wrong with you.

ELIZABETH WHITE: There has to be.

And — and then you read things like, oh, it’s the latte factor, it’s all that bottled water you were drinking. You know, it’s a…

PAUL SOLMAN: The latte factor, meaning you were spending too much money on…

ELIZABETH WHITE: Spent money, right.

PAUL SOLMAN: On Starbucks.

ELIZABETH WHITE: Right.

PAUL SOLMAN: But you could’ve saved more, couldn’t have you?

ELIZABETH WHITE: Absolutely. Absolutely.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, are you…

ELIZABETH WHITE: I could’ve not started a business, I stayed at the World Bank, not taken that, you know, risk.

PAUL SOLMAN: But she did. Her reward? Financial fragility, something she now shares with a surprisingly large portion of the former so-called middle class.

From Washington, D.C., this is economics correspondent Paul Solman, grateful to be reporting for the “PBS NewsHour.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we’re grateful you are too.

In next Thursday’s Making Sense: how common Elizabeth White’s plight is these days, and her tips for how to be normal in the face of financial adversity, instead of continuing to fake it.

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