To have a shot at something other than being old and poor in America, we’re going to have to save ourselves and each other. I’ve had to come out of the shadows, stand here openly, and I’m inviting you to do so as well. I’m not going to tell you that it’s not easy. I ventured though to tell my story because I thought it would make it a little easier for people to tell theirs.
I think it’s only through our strength in numbers that we can begin to change the national “la-la” conversation that we are having on this retirement crisis. With so many of us shell-shocked and adrift about what has happened to us, we’re going to have to build up from the grassroots, forming what I think are resilience circles. These are small groups of people coming together to talk about what has happened to them, to share resources and information and to begin to figure out a way forward.
I believe from this base that we can find our voices again and sound the alarm – start pushing our institutions and policymakers to go hard on this retirement crisis with the urgency it deserves. In the meantime – and there is an “in the meantime” – we’re going to have to adopt a live-low-to-the-ground mindset, drastically cutting back on our expenses.
And I don’t mean just living within our means. A lot of people are already doing that. What is called for now is to, in a much deeper way, ask ourselves what it really means to live a life that is not defined by things. I call it “smalling up.”
Smalling up is figuring out what you really need to feel contented and grounded. I have a friend who drives really beat-up, raggedy cars, but he will scrimp and save $15,000 at one point to buy a flute because music is what really matters to him. He smalled up.
I’ve had to also let go of magical thinking – this idea that if I just was patient enough and tightened my belt that things would go back to normal. If I just sent in one more CV or applied to one more job online or attended one more networking event that surely I’d get the kind of job I was used to having. Surely things would return to normal.
The truth is I’m not going back and neither are you. The normal that we knew is over. In this new place that we are, we’re going to be asked to do things that we don’t want to do. We’re going to be asked to take assignments that we think are beneath our station and our talent and our skill. I have had to get off my throne.
Last year, a good friend of mine asked me if I would help her with some organization work. I assumed she meant community organizing along the lines of what President Obama did in Chicago. She meant organizing somebody’s closet. I said, “I’m not doing that.” She said, “Get off your throne. Money is green.”
It’s not easy being part of the advance team that is ushering in this new era of work and living. First is always hardest. First is before there are networks and pathways and role models before there are policies and ways to show us how to go forward.
We’re in the middle of a seismic shift, and we’re going to have to find bridgework to get us through. Bridgework is what we do in the meantime; bridgework is what we do while we’re trying to figure out what is next. Bridgework is also letting go of this notion that our worth and our value depend on our income and our titles and our jobs.
Bridgework can look crazy or cool depending on how you were rolling when your personal financial crisis hit. I have friends with PhDs who are working at the Container Store or driving Uber or Lyft, and then I have other friends who are partnering with other boomers and doing really cool entrepreneurial ventures.
Bridgework doesn’t mean that we don’t want to build on our past careers, that we don’t want meaningful work. We do. Bridgework is what we do in the meantime while we’re figuring out what is next.
I’ve also learned to think strategy not failure when I’m sort of processing all these things that I don’t want to do. And I say that that’s an approach that I would invite you to consider as well.
So if you need to move in with your brother to make ends meet, call him. If you need to take in a boarder to help you pay your mortgage or pay your rent, do it. If you need to get food stamps, get the darn food stamps.
AARP says only a third of older adults who are eligible actually get them. Do what you need to do to go another round. Know that there are millions of us. Come out of the shadows. Cut back, small up; think strategy, not failure; get off your throne and find the bridgework to get your through the lean times.