Today’s life expectancy rate for U.S. citizens stands at 76.5 and 81.2 years for men and women, respectively, according to recent data provided by the world’s leader of medical research, Imperial College London.
But before we celebrate, it’s important to note that these levels are among the lowest of the world’s richest countries — a list of “lows” that includes places like Croatia and Mexico.
Why? Because, among other factors, America lacks universal health insurance and has the highest child, maternal, homicide and body-mass index rates of any high-income country.
What’s more, many Americans 50 years of age or more have discovered that living longer often requires them to work longer in order to keep up with their financial obligations and personal desires.
That’s what one D.C. resident, Elizabeth White, a former COO for a midsize nonprofit organization, once-celebrated entrepreneur and a graduate of Harvard Business School with an MBA, learned while struggling on the edge of a financial precipice for years despite outward appearances.
White, now in her 60s, chronicles the pain she experienced as her flourishing career and upper-middle class lifestyle came to a grinding halt in her self-published book, “Fifty-Five, Unemployed and Faking Normal” and says that while she “pretended” that things were going great, in truth she feared the future — and soon discovered that she had a lot of company.
“There’s a lot of pressure to act like you’re doing well, that’s why I describe my personal reflections as an act of ‘faking normal,’” she said while speaking to this writer and others during a weeklong conference sponsored by the World Congress of Gerontology and Geriatrics in San Francisco last July.
White admits that the townhouse she purchased years ago now has a rental rate that she couldn’t begin to afford today. Nor can she afford to pay the fee for private parking.
Meanwhile, and in terms of how she reached her unexpected financial crisis, she says that after making her mark as one of only a handful of Black women employed by the World Bank, she took a huge piece of her retirement savings to fund her own business promoting African-inspired products — a venture that had tremendous potential but which eventually failed.
“We were doing well but I could see that we were not going to be able to grow the business into a national chain as we were already struggling with volume,” she said. “One day I just closed my stores.”
For a while, White survived due to consistent consulting work. Then, as the 2008 economic crash occurred, she went from close to $200,000 a year to zero.
“The jobs of the past weren’t there anymore,” she said. “And I found it harder to get hired than I did years earlier — probably due to age discrimination. It didn’t matter how great I may have looked. I learned that early being in one’s 50s was no longer considered ‘young’ in the workplace. I realized I was in trouble.”
Recent data from several social research organizations indicate that from the ages of 45 to 55, wages decline by 9 percent or more — declining by an additional 9 percent for those between 55 and 65. And believe it now, most experts say age discrimination starts at around 35 with women bearing the brunt much sooner and more intensely than men.
“Maybe it was too many bottled waters and too many visits to Starbucks,” White says with a laugh.
“I was embarrassed to admit to my friends what was going on in my life. But it was those same friends who helped me make it. I realized I had to come to terms with my new reality and deal with life on new terms.”
In her book, she provides over 100 online resources and offers ways to deal with the emotions she faced after landing in financial ruin.
“We’re in the midst of a massive paradigm shift,” she writes in her book’s conclusion. “Much of what we know has been turned on its head. We’re going to make mistakes. Learn from them. Forgive yourself. Focus on what is working. Throw the rest away.”
This article was written as part of the Journalists in Aging Fellows Program organized by The Gerontological Society of America, New America Media and AARP.