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On Getting Real About Our Retirement Income Crisis: An Interview with Elizabeth White

Our BlackHer Shero of the Week is Elizabeth White, author and aging solution advocate.  White’s recent book is 55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal.  Her TEDTalk, An Honest Look at the Personal Finance Crisis, has garnered over 1.5M views!  White is working to address the retirement income crisis for Baby Boomers and future generations. You may have seen her essays or read about her in “The New York Times”, “Barron’s”, “MarketWatch”, “Forbes” or the “Huffington Post”. She has been featured in three segments on “PBS NewsHour”.

Jocelyn: Elizabeth, how did you become an aging solutions advocate? 

Elizabeth: I am someone who was doing really well until I wasn’t. I wrote an essay called You Know Her describing what it was like to land here.  It went viral. Based on my own experience and that of my friends, I wrote about what it was really like to be 55, un/underemployed and pretending to be OK when you’re not.   I was surprised that my personal and composite story resonated so widely.  Many people emailed me and shared that they too were facing downward mobility in their “golden years.”  I began to do more research on the state of retirement in the US today.  If I had not written the essay and gotten the vociferous response, I don’t think I would be here today.  That’s how I came to this work.

Jocelyn: Your essay is powerful.  You share a very different version of retirement than the one we’re used to seeing in advertisements. 

Elizabeth: Yes.  I think that’s part of why the essay spoke to so many people.  There is a “Me too” movement happening with older adults, who are not at all financially prepared for retirement.  We do not resonate with the “positive aging happy talk” which includes couples on cruise ships clinking wine glasses.  That is not an accurate depiction of retirement for so many.  No one is telling the truth about what retirement really looks like for millions of Americans.

Jocelyn: So, let’s talk about it.  You share a lot of great data in your TED Talk and book.  What is the scope of the US retirement income crisis?

Elizabeth: Median retirement savings for all adults 55 – 64 is $15,000, for middle-income folks it’s $60,000, and for the top 10% of earners it’s $200,000.  Perhaps the scariest fact is that the bottom 50% of earners have zero saved for retirement.  With life expectancy at 80, this is a huge problem.

Jocelyn: I was shocked when I first read these numbers.  I agree with you that this is something we must start talking and getting honest about.  How are Black women faring?

Elizabeth: Disadvantage accumulates over a lifetime.  The median wealth for single Black women is $200.  And, for so many of us, our ability to save is totally compromised.  We are the most unmarried group in the US, so we don’t have a partner to share the load.  Also, we face extreme wage disparities.

Jocelyn: One of the things I love about your book is that you share solutions.  But before we get to that.  How in the world did we get here?

Elizabeth: You can think of retirement income as a three-pronged stool.  The idea was that each American would fund their retirement with savings, a pension, and social security. That stool is wobbly now.  Pensions have disappeared.  And, stagnant and falling wages mean that for many folks there is no money left to save after paying the bills.  That leaves social security as the one and only retirement plan for far too many people.  It was never meant to be this way.  We need to reimagine the legs of the retirement income stool.

Jocelyn: Clearly, we need to expand social security, raise wages, and establish other public savings strategies but that won’t happen overnight.  What else can we do?

Elizabeth: Innovations around pensions and other retirement vehicles are really important but they will mostly benefit younger folks.  For people who are living this crisis right now, we’re going to have to get creative.  In my book, I profile people who are doing just this.  For example, we’re seeing more communal living arrangements, including multi-generational housing.  I also know single Black women who are coming together to share transportation, food, and other costs.  In the book, I focus on strategies for securing housing and income. I focus on what you can do right now if you land here.
Those of us living this can’t wait for all the systemic fixes.

I also see a real opportunity for marketers who are developing products for a large aging consumer base.  Boomers over 50 account for 50% of all spending on apparel, cars and trucks, and consumer goods, so marketing to older adults should be about more than pill dispensers and walkers.  I believe that savvy marketers will find ways to help older adults live a richly textured life on a modest income.  And this could be good for the environment as well.  For example, I think many more of us could embrace small living spaces if they were well designed, efficient, sustainable and affordable –if for example, our tiny apartment was airy and bright, looked out on to a beautiful courtyard and was near basic services and amenities. I think there is a way to address the retirement income crisis and advance eco-sustainability.

Jocelyn: I love that.

Elizabeth: Another important thing to note is that Boomers are just the first up this hill.  The retirement income crisis is not a pesky little Boomer problem.  Few Gen X’ers have pensions and Millennials have $1.5T in education debt!  We all have to have a conversation about living on modest budgets.

Jocelyn: This is so scary to me. 

Elizabeth: The facts are sobering but I don’t feel pessimistic.  I believe there is an incredible opportunity for us to think differently.

First, I want folks to know that they’re not alone.  It’s important to not sit in shame and blame because that keeps you silent and isolated. Shame disempowers.

Second, we must get real.  We must let go of the magical thinking that we’re going to get back to normal.  We’re not. Our bootstrap ingenuity and individual hustle are no match for the big structural issues like disappearing pensions and 40 years of stagnant wages

Third, we must “small up”!  We must ask ourselves what we really need to feel grounded and content in the world and not let our personal worth be overly defined by material acquisition, stuff and more stuff.  For Black women, this is particularly hard.  We’re driven toward acquisition and consumerism because we’ve been so undervalued.  Looking good, driving good and smelling good become ways we show we belong in the room. We need to get better at conscious consumerism and spending and discerning what we really need to feel grounded and centered; what we really need for a secure future.

Fourth, I urge people to “think strategy, not failure.”  For example, if getting a roommate will help you pay your mortgage, don’t see this as a failure.  See it as a strategy to sustain and secure yourself for now.

Fifth, find a few people that you can be truthful with.  You need to invest in a few friends who know what you are really going through and who will be there for you.

Jocelyn: That’s so helpful.  What do you want Black women to know about your work?

Elizabeth: I would love for Black women who are struggling with this retirement income crisis to consider starting what I call, Resilience Circles.  These are small groups that meet on a regular basis to share ideas and provide support.  In my book, I describe how to do it and share reflection questions to get women started.  In addition, because many women in their 30s and 40s are already struggling financially, I recommend actions younger women can start doing NOW.

I wanted the book to be a tool of possibility not just a talk-a-thon.  I include stories of real people, so people can see themselves.  I also share data on what is really happening.  Finally, I share lots of resources, so people can get ideas and access to help.

Jocelyn: It’s time for the miracle question.  You go to sleep tonight and wake up tomorrow and it’s May 2020 and the miracle has occurred for Black women.  What happened?

Elizabeth: We have the tools we need to sustain ourselves over the long-term.  We know the truth about where we are, and that truth is impacting the choices we are making about our spending decisions.  We are putting us and our own first.  We are combining our networks, politics, spending, and communities.  We can’t plan for every outcome, but we’ve made a mindset shift which includes openness, curiosity and being savvy.  That will put the wind at our backs.

Jocelyn

 

 

 

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