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Getting beyond ‘faking normal’ when you’re over 55 and unemployed

At age 55 Elizabeth White hit a wall.  This highly educated professional – a woman accustomed to jobs at places like the World Bank paying her six-figure salaries – couldn’t find meaningful work.

White had done fine finding jobs and contract positions until the Great Recession.  But then, she said in an interview, “I noticed that … I wasn’t getting callbacks.  [And when I was called back] I wasn’t getting the kinds of interviews I was used to getting in my late 30s and 40s.”

White, who was the featured speaker on the topic “55 Unemployed and Faking Normal” at the Institute for Career Transitions (ICT) conference at MIT in Cambridge on Dec. 9, ultimately became chief operating officer for a nonprofit.  (She also has worked in international development, sustainable investing and gender equality.) But after two years that job ended, and since then she has struggled, and has been spending down savings.

“Now I’m in my early 60s.  I’m applying to dozens and dozens of places, and I’m just not hearing back.”  Among her credentials, White has a Harvard MBA and a master’s in international studies from Johns Hopkins University.

You can move the dates off your resume, she said in a pre-conference interview. “But when you fill out an application you’re going to be forced to put everything back in. Now, as I’m talking with friends [my age, I see that] I have a lot of company.”

At a time of great frustration, she wrote her essay, “Unemployed, 55, and Faking Normal,” which she posted on Next Avenue – the PBS website for baby boomers.  In it, she wrote: “You know her.  She is in your friendship circle, hidden in plain sight.  She is 55, broke and tired of trying to keep up appearances.  Faking normal is wearing her out.”

Thence, White “began a journey” of research and advocacy that has resulted in her just-published book, “Fifty-five, Unemployed, and Faking Normal.”  Segueing off many of the topics in White’s book, the day-long ICT conference focused on the challenges of finding a job as an older worker – and potential solutions.

Among the presenters at the session was Ofer Sharone, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and co-founder of ICT.  On the challenges that older workers face in finding work, Sharone said during the conference: “This is a very difficult moment.  There is the perception that the economy is doing well.”

White concurs. “When I looked at the numbers, I realized we are really in a crisis. … [A recent study looked at] “retirement preparedness for people age 55 to 64.  Twenty-nine percent had not saved a dime.”

So what should we do?

“Short-term we can focus on [providing job seekers with] social and emotional support,” Sharone, who wrote the book “Flawed System/Flawed Self: Job Searching and Unemployment Experiences,” said in a phone interview. “Longer term, “we need to change hiring practices and make them more fair. [But ultimately we need to] think creatively about creating jobs.”

White, meanwhile, raised another key question: “Can we have a textured, meaningful life on less money?  And what does that look like?” And she made a number of suggestions:

  • About income:  “Many of us get in a place of denial.”  She says she sees people turn down well-compensated jobs because they feel they’ll get another very highly paid position.  “I think we’re really looking at multiple income streams.”  People need to let go of rigid ideas about jobs being “at our level.”  You can be “an adjunct instructor.  You can work at a container store.  You can be a lift driver.  You can have a consulting assignment in Mexico.”  She herself is “cobbling together” several different types of work.
  • About finding jobs:  She says older workers aren’t going to get jobs by applying online.  “The algorithm will toss us out.” Instead, “I’m very attentive to including younger people in my network.  I invite them to coffee.  They are where the action is. … Many of our contemporaries have retired.”  White says that her past four assignments have come from contacts she made with people in their late 30s and early 40s.
  • About saving money: She recommends “smalling up” – and suggests ways to have “a good-quality of life with a much more modest income.”  In particular, in her book she said she examines ways to reduce housing costs through shared housing arrangements.  “We need help from developers, from real estate people.”
  • About finding support: White suggests creating a “resilience circle” – a supportive community providing emotional and practical support.  Sharone concurs, commenting that “older professionals face deep employer biases … [and not finding a job can be] deeply emotionally bruising.”

White says her book “is an invitation to turn around and look at what’s in front of you.  [And] I’d love to see it culminate in more public forums” like the ones conducted by ICT.


David Hugh Smith, a writer, can be reached at


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