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TEDxVCU

Elizabeth White: An honest look at the personal finance crisis

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Millions of baby boomers are moving into their senior years with empty pockets and declining choices to earn a living. And right behind them is a younger generation facing the same challenges. In this deeply personal talk, author Elizabeth White opens up an honest conversation about financial trouble and offers practical advice for how to live a richly textured life on a limited income.

- Author, advocate
Elizabeth White is an author and aging solutions advocate for older adults facing uncertain work and financial insecurity. Full bio

You know me.
00:13
I am in your friendship circle
hidden in plain sight.
00:16
My clothes are still impeccable --
00:20
bought in the good years
when I was still making money.
00:23
To look at me you would not know
00:27
that my electricity was cut off
last week for nonpayment,
00:28
or that I meet the eligibility
requirements for food stamps.
00:32
But if you paid attention,
00:37
you would see that sadness in my eyes --
00:38
hear that hint of fear
in my otherwise self-assured voice.
00:40
These days I'm buying
the $1.99 trial-size jug of Tide
00:46
to make ends meet.
00:50
I bet you didn't know
laundry detergent came in that size.
00:51
You invite me to the same
expensive restaurants
00:55
the two of us have always enjoyed,
00:58
but I order mineral water now
with a twist of lemon,
01:00
not the 12-dollar glass of chardonnay.
01:02
I am frugal in my menu choices.
01:06
Meticulous, I count
every penny in my head.
01:09
I demur dividing the table bill evenly
to cover desserts and designer coffees
01:12
and second and third glasses
of wine I did not consume.
01:18
I am tired of trying to fake appearances.
01:22
A friend told me that I'm broke not poor,
and there is a difference.
01:27
I live without cable, my gym membership
01:31
and nail appointments.
01:33
I've discovered I can do my own hair.
01:35
There is no retirement savings,
01:37
no nest egg.
01:39
I exhausted that long ago.
01:42
There is no expensive condo to draw equity
01:44
and no husband to back me up.
01:47
Months of slow pay and no pay
have decimated my credit.
01:50
Bill collectors call constantly,
01:55
reading verbatim from a script
01:57
before expressing
polite sympathy for my plight
01:59
and then demanding payment
arrangements I can't possibly meet.
02:03
Friends wonder privately
how someone so well educated
02:07
could be in economic free fall.
02:11
I'm still as talented as ever
and smart as a whip,
02:15
but work is sketchy now,
02:19
mostly on and off consulting gigs.
02:20
At 55 I've learned how to fake cheeriness,
02:23
but there are not many
opportunities for work anymore.
02:29
I don't remember exactly when it stopped,
02:34
but I cannot deny now having entered
02:36
the uncertain world
of formerly and used to be.
02:39
I'm not sure anymore where I belong.
02:43
What I do know is that dozens
of online job applications
02:47
seem to just disappear into a black hole.
02:50
I'm wondering what is to become of me.
02:54
So far my health has held up,
02:57
but my body aches -- or is it my spirit?
03:00
Homeless women used to be invisible to me
03:04
but I appraise them now with curious eyes,
03:07
wondering if their stories
started like mine.
03:10
I wrote this piece a year ago.
03:15
It's a composite of my story
and other women I know.
03:17
I wrote it because
I was tired of pretending
03:20
I was all right when I wasn't.
03:23
I was tired of faking normal.
03:25
I wasn't seeing myself
in the popular press.
03:28
Nobody I knew was traveling the world
or buying a condo in Costa Rica.
03:32
Very few of my friends
had set aside the 15 to 20 percent
03:37
experts tell us we need to maintain
our standard of living in retirement.
03:42
My friends, many in their 50s and 60s,
03:49
were looking at a downward mobility,
03:51
a work-for-life proposition,
03:53
just a job loss, medical diagnosis
or divorce away from insolvency.
03:55
We may not have hit rock bottom,
04:02
but many of us saw a sequence of events
04:05
where rock bottom
was possible for the first time.
04:09
And the truth is,
it really doesn't take much.
04:13
The median household in the US
04:17
only has enough savings
to replace one month of income.
04:19
Forty-seven percent of us
04:24
cannot pull together 400 dollars
to deal with an emergency.
04:25
That's almost half of us.
04:30
A major car repair
and we're standing on the abyss.
04:31
You wouldn't know it to look around you --
04:36
I'm not the only one in this situation.
04:38
There are people in this room
who are in the same predicament,
04:42
and if it's not you,
04:46
it is your parents or your sister
or maybe your best friend.
04:47
We get good at faking normal.
04:52
Shame keeps us silent and siloed.
04:55
When I first decided I was going
to come out with my story,
04:59
I did a website
05:03
and a friend noticed
that there were no photos of me --
05:04
it was all kind of cartoons like this.
05:07
Even as I was coming out,
05:11
I was still hiding.
05:14
We live in a world
where success is defined by income.
05:18
When you say that you have money problems,
05:25
you're announcing
pretty much that you're a loser.
05:28
When you're a graduate
of Harvard Business School as I am,
05:31
you're some kind of double loser.
05:35
We boomers hear a lot about
how we have underfunded our retirement;
05:37
how it's all our fault.
05:42
Why on earth would we draw down
our 401(k) plan to cover the shortfall
05:44
on our mother-in-law's nursing home care,
05:49
or to pay for our kid's tuition,
or just to survive?
05:53
We're accused of being
poor planners and deadbeats --
05:57
all that money we spent
on lattes and bottled water.
06:00
To shame and blame
is so deliciously tempting.
06:05
Many of us don't even wait
for others to do it
06:09
we're so busy doing it to ourselves.
06:12
I say let's own our part:
06:15
we all could have saved more.
06:17
I know I could have saved more,
06:19
and if you were to rifle through
my life over the last 30 years,
06:21
you would see more than one
dumb thing I have done financially.
06:27
I can't change that now
06:31
and neither can you,
06:34
but let's not mix up
individual, isolated behavior
06:35
with the systemic factors
06:41
that have caused a 7.7-trillion-dollar
retirement income gap.
06:43
Millions of boomer-age Americans
did not land here
06:49
because of too many trips to Starbucks.
06:52
We spent the last three decades
dealing with flat and falling wages
06:56
and disappearing pensions
07:00
and through-the-roof cost
07:02
on housing and health care and education.
07:03
It used to not be like this.
07:07
We all remember the three-legged
retirement income stool
07:09
which had the savings
and pension and social security.
07:15
Well, that stool has gone wobbly.
07:21
Take savings -- what savings?
07:23
For many families,
07:25
there's just nothing left to save
after the bills have been paid.
07:26
The pension leg of the stool
has also gone wobbly.
07:31
We can remember
when many people had pensions.
07:34
Today only 13 percent of American workers
are employed by companies that offer them.
07:36
So what did we get instead?
07:43
We got 401(k)-type plans
07:44
and suddenly responsibility
for retirement planning got shifted
07:47
from our companies to us.
07:51
We got the reigns
but we also got the risk,
07:54
and it turns out that millions of us
just aren't that good
07:57
at voluntarily investing over 40 years.
08:01
Millions of us just aren't that good
at managing market risk.
08:05
And really the numbers tell the story.
08:11
Half of all American households
have no retirement savings at all.
08:13
That would be zero.
08:19
No 401(k), no IRA, not a dime.
08:20
Among 55-to-64-year-olds
who do have a retirement account,
08:23
the median value of that account
is 104,000 dollars.
08:28
Now, 104,000 dollars
does sound better than zero,
08:33
but as an annuity,
it generates about 300 dollars.
08:38
I don't have to tell you
that you can't live on that.
08:42
With savings down,
08:46
pensions becoming a relic of the past
08:48
and 401(k) plans
failing millions of Americans,
08:51
many near-retirees
are dependent on social security
08:55
as their retirement plan.
08:59
But here's the problem.
09:01
Social security was never supposed
to be the retirement plan.
09:03
It's not nearly enough.
09:07
At best it replaces
something like 40 percent
09:08
of your pre-retirement income.
09:11
Things have changed a lot
09:15
from when social security
was introduced back in 1935.
09:17
Then, a 21-year-old male
had a 50 percent chance
09:21
of living until he was 65.
09:26
So he retired at 60,
09:29
did a little fishing,
kissed his grandkids,
09:32
got his gold watch --
09:34
he'd be dead within five years
of receiving benefits.
09:36
That's not the pattern today.
09:40
If you're in your late
50s and in good health,
09:42
you're going to live easily
another 20 or 25 years.
09:45
That's a really long time
to make ends meet
09:49
if you are broke.
09:52
So what's the play if you've landed here
09:54
and you're 50 or 55 or 60?
09:57
What's the play
if you don't want to land here
10:00
and you're 22 or 32?
10:04
Here's what I've learned
from my own experience.
10:07
The cavalry's not coming.
10:10
There is no big rescue,
10:12
no prince charming,
10:14
no big bailout in the works.
10:16
To have a shot at something other
than being old and poor in America,
10:19
we're going to have to save
ourselves and each other.
10:24
I've had to come out of the shadows,
10:28
stand here openly,
10:34
and I'm inviting you to do so as well.
10:37
I'm not going to tell you
that it's not easy.
10:40
I ventured though to tell my story
10:44
because I thought it would make it
a little easier for people to tell theirs.
10:47
I think it's only through
our strength in numbers
10:51
that we can begin to change
the national "la-la" conversation
10:54
that we are having
on this retirement crisis.
10:59
With so many of us shell-shocked
and adrift about what has happened to us,
11:03
we're going to have to build up
from the grassroots,
11:08
forming what I think
are resilience circles.
11:12
These are small groups
of people coming together
11:15
to talk about what has happened to them,
11:19
to share resources and information
11:23
and to begin to figure out a way forward.
11:25
I believe from this base
that we can find our voices again
11:28
and sound the alarm --
11:32
start pushing our institutions
and policymakers
11:34
to go hard on this retirement crisis
with the urgency it deserves.
11:39
In the meantime --
11:43
and there is an "in the meantime" --
11:45
we're going to have to adopt
a live-low-to-the-ground mindset,
11:47
drastically cutting back on our expenses.
11:52
And I don't mean
just living within our means.
11:55
A lot of people are already doing that.
12:00
What is called for now is to,
12:04
in a much deeper way,
12:07
ask ourselves what it really means
12:09
to live a life
that is not defined by things.
12:11
I call it "smalling up."
12:15
Smalling up is figuring out
what you really need
12:18
to feel contented and grounded.
12:22
I have a friend who drives
really beat-up, raggedy cars,
12:25
but he will scrimp and save
15,000 dollars at one point
12:30
to buy a flute
12:36
because music is
what really matters to him.
12:37
He smalled up.
12:40
I've had to also let go
of magical thinking --
12:43
this idea that if I just
was patient enough
12:45
and tightened my belt
12:49
that things would go back to normal.
12:51
If I just sent in one more CV
12:53
or applied to one more job online
12:57
or attended one more networking event
13:00
that surely I'd get the kind of job
I was used to having.
13:03
Surely things would return to normal.
13:07
The truth is I'm not going back
and neither are you.
13:10
The normal that we knew is over.
13:15
In this new place that we are,
13:19
we're going to be asked to do things
that we don't want to do.
13:21
We're going to be asked
to take assignments
13:25
that we think are beneath
our station and our talent
13:28
and our skill.
13:31
I have had to get off my throne.
13:33
Last year, a good friend of mine
asked me if I would help her
13:36
with some organization work.
13:40
I assumed she meant community organizing
13:41
along the lines of what
President Obama did in Chicago.
13:44
She meant organizing somebody's closet.
13:48
I said, "I'm not doing that."
13:51
She said, "Get off your throne.
Money is green."
13:53
It's not easy being part
of the advance team
13:58
that is ushering in this new era
of work and living.
14:01
First is always hardest.
14:06
First is before there are networks
14:08
and pathways and role models ...
14:11
before there are policies
and ways to show us
14:14
how to go forward.
14:20
We're in the middle of a seismic shift,
14:23
and we're going to have to find
bridgework to get us through.
14:26
Bridgework is what we do in the meantime;
14:31
bridgework is what we do
14:33
while we're trying
to figure out what is next.
14:35
Bridgework is also
letting go of this notion
14:38
that our worth and our value
depend on our income
14:41
and our titles and our jobs.
14:45
Bridgework can look crazy or cool
depending on how you were rolling
14:48
when your personal financial crisis hit.
14:52
I have friends with PhDs
who are working at the Container Store
14:55
or driving Uber or Lyft,
14:59
and then I have other friends
who are partnering with other boomers
15:01
and doing really cool
entrepreneurial ventures.
15:05
Bridgework doesn't mean that we don't want
15:09
to build on our past careers,
15:14
that we don't want meaningful work.
15:16
We do.
15:19
Bridgework is what we do in the meantime
15:20
while we're figuring out what is next.
15:24
I've also learned to think
strategy not failure
15:28
when I'm sort of processing
all these things that I don't want to do.
15:31
And I say that that's an approach
15:37
that I would invite you
to consider as well.
15:39
So if you need to move in
with your brother to make ends meet,
15:42
call him.
15:46
If you need to take in a boarder
to help you pay your mortgage
15:48
or pay your rent,
15:53
do it.
15:55
If you need to get food stamps,
15:56
get the darn food stamps.
15:58
AARP says only a third of older adults
who are eligible actually get them.
16:00
Do what you need to do
to go another round.
16:07
Know that there are millions of us.
16:11
Come out of the shadows.
16:15
Cut back,
16:17
small up;
16:18
think strategy, not failure;
16:20
get off your throne
16:23
and find the bridgework
to get your through the lean times.
16:25
As a country, we have achieved longevity,
16:30
investing billions of dollars
in the diagnosis, treatment
16:34
and management of disease.
16:39
It's not enough to just live a long time.
16:41
We want to live well.
16:46
We haven't invested nearly as much
in the physical infrastructure
16:48
to ensure that that happens.
16:54
We need now a new way of thinking
16:57
about what it means to be old in America.
17:00
And we need guidance
and ideas about how to live
17:04
a richly textured life
17:10
on a much more modest income.
17:12
So I am calling on change agents
17:15
and social entrepreneurs,
17:18
artists and elders
17:20
and impact investors.
17:22
I'm calling on developers
and disrupters of the status quo.
17:23
We need you to help us imagine
17:29
how to invest in the services
and products and infrastructure
17:33
that will support our dignity,
17:39
our independence and our well-being
17:41
in these many, many decades
that we're going to live.
17:44
My journey has taken me
from a place of fear and shame
17:49
to one of humility and understanding.
17:53
I'm ready now to link shields with others,
17:56
to fight this fight,
18:00
and I'm inviting you to join me.
18:03
Thank you.
18:05
(Applause)
18:07

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About the speaker:

Elizabeth White - Author, advocate
Elizabeth White is an author and aging solutions advocate for older adults facing uncertain work and financial insecurity.

Why you should listen
When Elizabeth White could not find a book that met her needs during her own bout of long-term unemployment, she wrote it herself. She wrote it as a 62-year-old woman who has lived the stories she describes, and as a Harvard MBA, former retail entrepreneur and C-suite executive who never expected to land here.

Three years ago, White wrote an essay describing her own precarious financial situation and that of a number of her boomer age friends, all former high earners with advanced degrees. The essay was published online and within three days it had received over 11,000 likes and 1,000 comments. Many wrote to White directly sharing stories of hardship and struggle. The economics of aging was forcing them to abandon dreams of launching fulfilling second- and third-act careers to take part-time, low wage jobs to pay the bills. In their stories, White saw her own, and the idea of writing a book was born.

White's book, 55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal is about the millions of older Americans who, despite a history of career choice and decent incomes, are facing (often for the first time) the prospect of downward mobility in old age. Based on expert research and interviews with older adults, the book looks at the tools and strategies boomers can utilize to make sense of changed circumstances, better manage financial hardship and achieve a more inner-directed and satisfying life.
 
White's message is striking a chord. She is among a small but growing minority seeking to reframe the national conversation we're having on aging, work and retirement. White is a frequent guest blogger and speaker at conferences and workshops, and she has recently been named one of the top 50 influencers on aging in the country. Her essays and work have appeared in publications like Forbes, The Huffington Post, Next Avenue and The Washington Post. And she has been featured prominently in three segments on the PBS NewsHour.

More profile about the speaker
Elizabeth White | Speaker | TED.com