MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:
On the show today, we're exploring personal stories from past financial meltdowns and how so many people are just a few missed paychecks away from crisis.
ELIZABETH WHITE: There are a lot of people who, on that day-to-day basis, are struggling. And I see it as getting worse, not better.
ZOMORODI: This is writer Elizabeth White, and her crisis began right after the 2008 crash. But up until then, Elizabeth had been doing really well.
WHITE: You know, I have all the props and credentials. I have a Harvard MBA. I have a master's in international studies from Hopkins. I went to Oberlin undergraduate. You know, I worked at the World Bank. I have this background. And all of a sudden, during the Great Recession, I lost two big consultancies. And suddenly, I'm unemployed at 55. And I actually wasn't worried because of my background and my network and, you know, I'd been out of work before and pretty quickly found something. But this was different. Suddenly, here you are, looking in on a life that's not yours anymore. What do you do when that's your story?
ZOMORODI: In conversations with friends, Elizabeth heard lots of stories that sounded like hers. And so a few years ago, she decided to write an essay about what it's like to lose your safety net in your 50s. And I asked her to read it for us.
WHITE: (Reading) You know me. I'm in your friendship circle, hidden in plain sight. My clothes are still impeccable, bought in the good years when I was still making money. To look at me, you would not know that my electricity was cut off last week for non-payment or that I meet the eligibility requirements for food stamps. But if you paid attention, you would see the sadness in my eyes, hear that hint of fear in my otherwise self-assured voice.
These days, I buy the $1.99 trial-size jug of Tide to make ends meet. You didn't know laundry detergent came in that size. You invite me to the same expensive restaurants that the two of us have always enjoyed. But I order mineral water now with a twist of lemon instead of the $12 glass of chardonnay. I am frugal in my menu choices, counting every penny in my head. I demur dividing the table bill evenly to cover desserts, designer coffees and second and third glasses of wine I did not consume. I am tired of trying to keep up appearances. Faking normal is wearing me out.
There are no media stories about me. My slide out of the middle class is not sensational enough. A friend says I'm broke, not poor, and that there's a difference. I live without cable, my gym membership or nail appointments. I've discovered I can do my own hair. I have no retirement savings, no nest egg. I exhausted that long ago. There is no expensive condo from which to draw equity and no husband to back me up.
Months of slow pay and no pay have decimated my credit. Bill collectors call me constantly, reading verbatim from a script, expressing polite sympathy for my plight before demanding payment arrangements I can't possibly meet. Friends wonder privately how someone so well-educated could be in economic freefall. I am still as talented as ever and as smart as a whip, but my work is sketchy now, mostly on-and-off consulting gigs. Friends hear about this and that assignment but can't remember when I had a real job.
At 55, I've learned how to fake cheeriness and to appear to be engaged, but my phone doesn't ring with opportunities anymore. I don't remember exactly when it stopped, but I cannot deny now, having entered the uncertain world of formerly and used to be. In the face of mega-generational shifts, I'm not sure anymore where I belong. What I do know is that dozens of online job applications seem to disappear into a black hole. I am convinced that employers have set their online job recruitment algorithms to reject anyone who graduated before 1995.
I wonder what is to become of me. I am facing a work-for-life proposition. So far, my health has held up, but my body aches. Or is it my spirit? Homeless women used to be invisible to me, but I appraise them now with curious eyes, wondering if their stories started like mine.
ZOMORODI: So that original essay from 2016, what was the response to the essay? It seemed to resonate with a lot of people. What was that? What happened?
WHITE: So I wrote this essay at a point of real personal despair. I remember I wrote it in one go, sort of sitting on my bed, and I just wrote what I was feeling. And within a couple of days, it had thousands of likes and over a thousand comments. And I read all of them. And I was so surprised because the response was, me, too, my husband. This is my sister. This is myself. Why is no one talking about this? And when I looked at the data, I was astonished because I realized that there were millions of people who had landed here.
There's now, like, really good data that shows that more than half of people in their 50s are pushed out of the workforce. And we like to pretend that our financial woes, that the financial woes that many Americans are experiencing are not systemic, that it's the result of being lazy or irresponsible. And so there is a big shame element here when people land here. They don't want to talk about it. And what's dangerous about not talking about it is when we're in denial, we then don't address it.
ZOMORODI: Here's Elizabeth White on the TED stage.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
WHITE: Millions of boomer-age Americans did not land here because of too many trips to Starbucks. We spent the last three decades dealing with flat and falling wages and disappearing pensions and through-the-roof costs on housing and health care and education. It used to not be like this. We all remember the three-legged retirement income stool - savings and pension and Social Security. Well, that stool has gone wobbly. Take savings. What savings? For many families, there's just nothing left to save after the bills have been paid.
The pension leg of the stool has also gone wobbly. We can remember when many people had pensions. Today, only 13% of American workers are employed by companies that offer them. So what did we get instead? We got 401(k)-type plans, and suddenly responsibility for retirement planning got shifted from our companies to us. We got the reins, but we also got the risk. And it turns out that millions of us just aren't that good at voluntarily investing over 40 years. Millions of us just aren't that good at managing market risk. And really, the numbers tell the story. Half of all American households have no retirement savings at all. That would be zero - no 401(k), no IRA, not a dime.
Things have changed a lot from when Social Security was introduced back in 1935. Then, a 21-year-old male had a 50% chance of living until he was 65. So he retired at 60, did a little fishing, kissed his grandkids, got his gold watch. He'd be dead within five years of receiving benefits. That's not the pattern today. If you're in your late 50s in good health, you're going to live easily another 20 or 25 years. That's a really long time to make ends meet if you are broke.
ZOMORODI: After the break, more from Elizabeth White on how financial meltdowns affect older adults from 2008 to today. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. On the show today, a Century of Money. Before the break, we were hearing from Elizabeth White, who described hitting rock bottom after the 2008 recession. We actually spoke to Elizabeth before the pandemic began. But of course, the conversation has changed a lot since then, and so we wanted to talk to her again.
Elizabeth, how are you? How have you been since the start of the pandemic?
WHITE: You know, I've been all over the place. But I was saying yesterday to a friend, I'm 90% good is how I would describe it.
ZOMORODI: Since we last spoke, millions of people have gone through almost exactly what you described going through after the 2008 recession, going from being fine to not being fine at all. And I think it's been really shocking for a lot of people. Have you been hearing stories about what is happening, especially for older people, right now?
WHITE: I definitely still hear from people who still write. And I've done some writing myself about this. One of the things I think that's different this time - so for, you know, as big as the 2008, 2009 Great Recession was, we already in just these last few months have had more people lose their jobs than during that whole period of the Great Recession. And with older adults, we're going to be more impacted than people who are younger. I've already described the stats that say half the people are losing their jobs in their 50s. That was happening before the pandemic. Only 10% of those workers will ever get a job again with pay that's commensurate with the job that they left.
So I always think now when I see - you know, we used to go to the gym, and you'd see someone at the front desk, an older worker. Or you'd see somebody suddenly, you know, bagging groceries somewhere. They're maybe not there because they want to be. All of these people didn't suddenly become incompetent in their 50s, when they get pushed out of the workforce. The crisis with jobs is not just jobs. We have a good jobs crisis. That home health aide taking care of somebody's 87-year-old mother makes $17,000 a year on average. She has no child care, often no health care, no hazard care. So you can be employed, but then you can't barely support yourself.
ZOMORODI: You have turned your experience essentially into an expertise in helping older people face economic disasters. But the safety nets that you're talking about, the ones that have gone away, are actually - they are not age-specific, right?
WHITE: Yeah. You know, so this is not a pesky little boomer problem. Gen Xers are not going to have pensions, either. Millennials are definitely not going to have pensions. Everybody is facing higher cost in housing and health care. So boomers - we're just first going up this hill, looking out into the future of what will it mean to be an older person in America. So kind of all of this - I think it is ripe now to have this conversation, to address things that the pandemic revealed but were always there.
ZOMORODI: That's writer Elizabeth White. Her book is called "55, Underemployed, And Faking Normal." You can find her full talk at ted.com.
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