Preface: Any time I highlight someone’s work that’s gender-specific, I fear alienating half my audience. Elizabeth White’s work is about a largely female phenomenon in the workplace, but it is by no means exclusive, and I hope that in the process of applying its principles to this audience, my male readers feel included and considered. I value your presence and invite your voices in the comments.
Last winter I met a remarkable woman, Elizabeth White, the author of 55, Unemployed, and Faking Normal. It occurs to me that her work probably applies to many of my readers here. If you’re not familiar with it, she has a great TED talk, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hFpQ5N_ttNQ, and a book by the same title. https://www.amazon.com/Fifty-Five-Unemployed-Faking-Normal-Elizabeth/dp/1530055857
Elizabeth White was a successful professional woman who, like many middle-aged women, got downsized during the big 2008 downturn. She found herself unable to get another job appropriate for her experience and education. Instead of feeling isolated, like most of us, she looked around and saw legions of women just like her in the same position. Her observations led to her book. In a rare case of karmic justice, she was able to use her angst to help her into a new professional niche.
The book begins by assuring her audience that they are not alone; in fact, they are part of a groundswell of people displaced by the downturn. There is nothing to be ashamed of, and it’s okay to quit pretending to your friends that everything is all right.
She then goes on to address “what next?” You must accept that the cavalry isn’t coming—no big break is going to rescue you from your situation, and then learn to live with less. You have to be willing to take “bridge work” that you would have disdained in your previous life, and do whatever it takes to keep you going from one month to the next. At the same time, you need to figure out what is most important to you and let go of everything else. Try living in a smaller place, shopping from your own closet, and reducing consumption anywhere you can. She suggests finding other women in the same situation and forming structured Resiliency CirclesSM, groups that meet and discuss ways of coping with the new normal. The groups include exercises such as going around the circle and confessing the worst, most shameful thing you did since the last meeting (like paying one credit card with another, for example). It’s called “Top This” and it brings down facades, gets people to open up, and generates an exchange of better ideas.
I joined Elizabeth White’s target audience at age 45, in 2009. I landed firmly on my feet when I started contracting for a friend with a new firm, working from home and making more money for fewer hours of work. I loved working from home, it’s what I always dreamed of doing. I’ve never been good in an office environment, with all the distractions and extraneous activities that suck at your productivity. I was also never big on direct supervision. I don’t like justifying my every move to someone who’s watching. I’m an adult and can manage my own time, thank you. I found that the performance reviews were never as much about quality of work as they were an unhelpful social critique.
A year later, I got another hard blow—literally, this time. I was hit by a car while riding my bike, which resulted in my invisible disability—chronic pain and limited use of my right hand and left arm. When my big contract project ended, I discovered that the shining star it put on my resume was eclipsed by my age and my special needs. I made it clear I was prepared to deal with those special needs on my own, but employers don’t like anyone to be different. If I get a special break, everyone has to get a special break, and Lord knows we can’t have that.
When I read Elizabeth White’s book, I realized it wasn’t just my hidden disability, it was the whole package—my age and my having been downsized (the assumption being that nobody downsizes their best people) made me part of a huge demographic, and the hidden disability was just one more strike against me. It was both validating and depressing. It did offer ideas—something few people or books have done.
Ms. White’s work has something to offer members of this audience, even the men. Essentially, the book is a manual on self-reinvention and there is a ton of valuable information in it for anyone faced with a life-changing situation. The TED talk is only 18 minutes long and provides the framework of the book. The book delves deeply into all the issues she raises in her talk. Her conversational writing style makes it an easy, comfortable read. Because I know her personally, I often felt like I heard her reading to me in her voice.
Do any of you know Elizabeth White’s work? Did you watch her talk? Does it apply to you and your issues? Tell me what you think.
Added note: The book is being re-released on January 8 by Simon & Schuster. Remaining copies of the print book come from resellers and may be expensive, and I don’t know if the electronic version remains available–that’s what I have, and it cost quite a bit less than the print version. The new version will include much more about men in this position–yay!