February 22, 2017

Kojo Show Listeners Share Their Stories Of Being “Unemployed And Faking Normal”

By Avery Kleinman

Elizabeth White is on a mission to get older workers to stop “faking normal.”

“Even if you are not poor, exactly, you may still be facing downward mobility and feeling ashamed and embarrassed about it,” she writes in her self-published book, “55, Unemployed And Faking Normal.” “If so, come on out. Stop faking normal. There are millions of women like us and there is strength in our numbers.”

“55, Unemployed And Faking Normal” author Elizabeth White

On Tuesday, White spoke with Kojo Nnamdi and encouraged listeners in their 50s and 60s to be honest and open about their employment and financial challenges. She believes that age discrimination, soaring home prices and an inherently flawed retirement system have created a generation of workers who are struggling in secret.

Her story clearly was familiar to listeners. As the phone lines lit up with calls from around the region, we invited listeners to share their stories in full online.

Here’s how Kojo Nnamdi Show listeners are, as White puts it, “unemployed and faking normal”:

Anonymous, 53, Silver Spring, Md.

I’ve had every type of employment situation possible, and now (since 2012) I’m self-employed and barely able to knit “gigs” together. If it weren’t for my husband’s income, I would be below the poverty level… Because I made more money in my career in the past, my family still thinks I’m well-to-do even though they know I’m self-employed now. I guess I haven’t really spelled it out to them — I don’t want them to worry even more.  

Daniel, 61, Burtonsville, Md.

I was a member of the mission operations team for the Hubble Space Telescope from 1989 to 2011. Most of our team was laid off in 2011 due to budget cuts following retirement of the Space Shuttle. This is to be expected in the aerospace industry, where there is no such thing as lifetime employment. What was unexpected was that for every similar job that I applied for after that I have never been called in for an interview, while the younger members of my team were quickly hired for new positions. When I attended an “open house” hiring event, I was told that I did not possess the proper skills for their open positions and there was no budget for training to get up to speed in that position. This same company eagerly hired my younger teammates, some of whom I had trained. Age discrimination is alive and well in the tech world among employers who constantly boast about their commitment to diversity and inclusion, which rings rather hollow to engineers of my age who can’t get the time of day from an employer. 

Anonymous, 40, Hagerstown, Md.

I have been employed as an adjunct college professor for over ten years. I fake normal everyday that I go to teach [music] and spend time in front of my students. I fake normal as I take to my concert stage and pretend everything is okay. People don’t see the figurative “backstage” as classical musicians struggle to dress for concerts, maintain their instruments, and buy materials needed to continue in their careers while working many teaching jobs.

Diana, 74:

I’m a health writer and healthcare copywriter. I made over $100,000 a year for a number of years until I reached my 60s, when as a freelancer I found the work opportunities diminishing. It actually took me awhile to realize this was due to my age! After all, I was as skilled and experienced as ever and even more so as my life went on… I continue to struggle to find work, and I’m very concerned that I don’t have savings and live from week to week, surviving on what I can find and with help from a loving daughter. I’m healthy and strong now, but if that ever changes…. well, I don’t need to say more.

Rose, 50, Md.

I chose to leave a job to provide extra care to my aging mother and uncle… I have been living off savings and a small inheritance while looking for a new full time position and I’m finding myself either over qualified or in need of an advanced degree to get positions that fit my 25 years of professional experience… I choose to keep my employment status a secret from most of my family, only a few close friends know that I am unemployed and looking for a new job. I spend a lot of time at the library and Starbucks so not to arouse suspicion! I would like to see more emphasis from potential employers on work experience and accomplishments, less on higher degrees. I also believe women in their 40s and 50s need more help attaining master’s and doctoral degrees while trying to balance a full-time job and family. More financial aid, scholarships, and mentoring would create more advanced degree holders which can translate to better job candidates and leaders. 

Brooke, 52:

I am 52 and after three years of unemployment started working as a dealer at a casino. I also drive for Uber and have my own karaoke/DJ business just to maintain a standard of living that resembles what I had when I was a corporate manager. I have an MBA and an undergraduate degree in mathematics. I worked for George Washington University in 1982, when 401(k) programs were becoming the thing and organizations were moving away from providing retirement. Preparing for retirement was poorly communicated then. I was 19 at the time and started putting away a little something. However, through being a stay at home mom, lapses in income, financial emergencies, economic crises, divorce, my retirement took multiple hits. However, had I had no retirement at all I don’t know how I would have survived this long.

Listener responses were edited for length and clarity. Are you facing similar challenges? Listen to the original conversation with Elizabeth White.