Unemployed at midlife, “faking normal”…and sometimes bullied, too

Screenshot from Next Avenue.org

Screenshot from Next Avenue.org (Photo: DY)

In a plaintive commentary posted on Next Avenue earlier this year, Lizzy White writes about professional, middle-aged women who have lost their jobs and are struggling to make ends meet as they search for work:

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.

To look at her, you wouldn’t know that her electricity was cut off last week for non-payment or that she meets the eligibility requirements for food stamps. Her clothes are still impeccable, bought in the good times when she was still making money.

To be sure, the effects of the economic meltdown that began some seven years ago continue to be felt by men and women in almost every income level and vocational category. But those of my generation (late Boomers in their 50s), and notably unmarried women within that group, have felt its impact especially hard, with livelihoods and careers interrupted or ended at what should be periods of peak earning potential. White continues:

She lives without cable, a gym membership and nail appointments. She’s discovered she can do her own hair.

There are no retirement savings, no nest egg; she exhausted that long ago. There is no expensive condo from which to draw equity and no husband to back her up.

Months of slow pay and no pay have decimated her credit. Bill collectors call constantly, reading verbatim from a script, expressing polite sympathy for her plight — before demanding payment arrangements that she can’t possibly meet.

White provides more facts and figures to document the income disparities and disproportionate caregiving responsibilities that often put women in a less advantaged position than their male counterparts. It’s an important piece, and the comments posted below it are worth reading as well, including those who rightly point out that middle-aged men who have experienced job losses are facing these circumstances, too.

The bullying effect

This topic intersects with workplace bullying, because middle-aged workers endure a lot of it. When work abuse culminates in their termination or departure, they often face multi-level challenges in trying to pull themselves together and obtain new employment.

Two years ago, I summarized Workplace Bullying Institute instant poll results showing that workers in the 40s and 50s are frequent bullying targets. The poll asked visitors to the WBI website who have experienced workplace bullying to respond to a single question, “How old were you when the bullying at work began?” WBI collected 663 responses and reported the following:

The average age was 41.9 years. Targets in their 40’s comprised 30% of all targets; in their 50’s were 26.4%; under 30 years of age were 21.3%; those in their 30’s were 18.9%. The prime productive years are also the prime years for being [targeted] for bullying.

Five years ago, I suggested that unmarried women may be specially vulnerable to being bullied at work, especially if they have kids:

Let’s start with the observation that truly abusive bullies often have a knack for sniffing out vulnerable individuals. Then we look at potential targets: Demographically speaking, is there any group more vulnerable than single women raising kids? They already are juggling work and caregiving, their schedules seem timed down to the minute, and not infrequently they are struggling financially — especially if there is no father in the picture.

Unmarried women without children may not be as economically desperate to hold onto their jobs, but they can be very vulnerable as well. Women in general remain underpaid compared to male counterparts. Those who came out of busted marriages may have re-entered the workforce later in life. In any event, they are less likely to have someone to fall back on if bullied out of a job.

Over the years, I’ve encountered many women in their 50s who have been bullied out of their jobs and then face the daunting challenges of recovering from the experience in terms of psychological well-being, employment, and personal finances. For those individuals, “faking normal” may require wearing a mask that feels like a heavy weight, in addition to carrying the burdens of their situations generally.

Sad, disturbing stuff

This makes for pretty unpleasant and unsettling reading, especially if you’re on the north side of 50. These challenges are hitting my generation of late Boomers especially hard.

Decades ago, many of us entered the workforce in the heart of a severe recession. At the same time, employers were cutting back or eliminating pensions and other benefit plans. For those going to school, loans were supplanting need-based grants and scholarships as the primary form of financial aid.

And now this group has experienced an even more severe economic downturn during the heart of what should be its peak earning years.

It distresses me greatly that we have not summoned the collective will to make this a major political and public policy issue. What will it take to make it so?

Is America “On the Beach” about its retirement funding crisis?

Is America simply waiting for the huge, coming crisis in retirement funding to overtake us? What happens then?

The situation reminds me of the 1959 movie, On the Beach, starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner. In the film, Australians are attempting to carry on with their everyday lives, while knowing that massive, deadly nuclear fallout, which already has wiped out most of the rest of humanity, is heading their way. When that occurs, they, too, will have no hope for survival.

For years I’ve been writing here about the emerging retirement funding crisis, and I’ve seen little evidence that things are getting any better. In fact, a major new research report by the non-profit, non-partisan National Institute for Retirement Security (NIRS) concludes “that the U.S. retirement savings crisis continues to worsen, and that the typical working household still has virtually no retirement savings.”

The new report, The Continuing Retirement Savings Crisis (authored by Dr. Nari Rhee and Ilana Bouvie) is a thorough update of a 2013 NIRS report, The Retirement Savings Crisis: Is It Worse Than We Think? NIRS concludes that the situation remains very dire. Here are some key points drawn from the 2015 report:

  • “When all households are included— not just households with retirement accounts—the median retirement account balance is $2,500. The median retirement account balance was $3,000 for all working-age households as reported in a previous 2013 report.”
  • “For near-retirement households, the new analysis finds that the median retirement account balance is $14,500.”
  • “(S)ome 62 percent of working households age 55-64 have retirement savings less than one times their annual income, which is far below what Americans need to be self-sufficient in retirement.”
  • “Even after counting households’ entire net worth—a generous measure of retirement savings—two thirds (66 percent) of working families fall short of conservative retirement savings targets for their age and income based on working until age 67.”

Personal and public policy responses

For those in a position to do so, this means paying close attention to retirement funding and engaging in steady, informed saving and investing. However, the realities behind the numbers are that many Americans will not be in a position to make up large shortfalls in expected retirement funding needs.

Clearly, we need to respond on a public scale simply to provide the means for a minimally secure, dignified retirement. The NIRS report agrees, observing that “(p)ublic policy can play a critical role in putting all Americans on a path toward a secure retirement by strengthening Social Security, expanding access to low cost, high quality retirement plans, and helping low income workers and families save.”

Now we get it, sort of

A recent NIRS public opinion survey “revealed that an overwhelming majority of Americans – 86 percent – believe that the nation faces a retirement crisis” and “that 75 percent of Americans are concerned about their ability to achieve a secure retirement.”  

In other words, America now understands that this is a crisis. 

It’s why I invoked On the Beach: We seem to know what’s coming, but we’re basically conducting business as usual. I guess it’s easier than imagining the specter of millions of people heading into their senior years with little or no retirement savings and a frayed safety net beneath them. Many around my age (50-somethings) are bravely saying, “I’ll just have to work forever,” but for a whole lot of reasons, that choice won’t be available to everyone.  

This is not a fun topic; it is a source of anxiety and stress for many, especially among my age cohort. However, unlike the Australian denizens in the movie, we are not necessarily doomed. We can undertake measures to soften this crisis — like shoring up the Social Security system, which is eminently do-able —  especially if we can summon more collective concern, caring, and kindness than what now dominates our political dialogue.

Instead of feeding on the usual nastiness that pervades typical cable news programs, let’s wrap our attention around these more significant concerns with some genuine heart quality and determination. The stakes are too high not to do so.

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Related posts

Hard looks at joblessness, retirement funding, and Generation Jones (2014)

Suicide and the Great Recession: Will we heed the tragic warnings? (2013)

Retirement party (2013)

Retirement expert: “Most middle-class Americans will become poor or near-poor retirees” (2012)

The press discovers the coming Boomer retirement crisis (2011)

When Boomers retire (or try to): America’s coming train wreck (2010)

Let’s get apocalyptic

jensen

University of Texas journalism professor Robert Jensen, in his thought provoking little book We Are All Apocalyptic Now: On the Responsibilities of Teaching, Preaching, Reporting, Writing, and Speaking Out (2013), urges intellectuals to be “responsibly apocalyptic.” I’ve discussed Dr. Jensen’s book before, and I’d like to spend a little more time with it. 

A different kind of revelation

Jensen defines apocalypse not in dramatic Biblical terms, but rather in reference to “crises that concentrated wealth and power create.” He continues, saying that “(i)t is not crazy to look at the state of the world — economically, politically, culturally, and ecologically — and conclude that there are rocky times ahead.” However, rather than invoking “a reactionary theology” that predicts “the rapture to come,” the concept of “apocalyptic vision can help us understand social and ecological ruptures in the here and now” (emphasis mine).

Intellectuals in institutions

Furthermore, Jensen observes that many intellectuals associated with institutions — “universities, think tanks, government, corporations” — go along with prevailing norms because they either believe in them or don’t want to get in trouble. Instead, he urges intellectuals to be “responsibly apocalyptic” and “to challenge the pre-ordained conclusions that the powerful prefer.” If intellectuals do not confront these norms, then the powerful need not worry about being accountable for their actions.

Responsibility

I referenced Dr. Jensen’s work in a blog piece in 2013, “The social responsibilities of intellectuals at a time of extraordinary human need,” written in conjunction with my participation in the biennial Congress of the International Academy of Law and Mental Health.” In that post, I invoked “responsibly bold” as my catchphrase for how scholars and intellectual activists should conduct themselves.

I agree with Jensen that we are living in an era marked by extreme inequalities of wealth and power distribution. These inequalities surely relate to a market-based economy run amok. In addition, they implicate power grabs in many societal settings that may transcend political labels — unless, of course, “thuggishness” counts as an ideology.

I have witnessed these dynamics in the workplace issues I study, research, write, and advocate about on a regular basis.

For example, workplace bullying is directly linked to organizational leadership and abuses of power. Though perpetrated by individuals, work abuse cannot flourish without buy-in and endorsement from the top.

Also, the widespread practice of unpaid internships, especially in the private sector, exploits labor under the guise of gaining “experience” and “credentials.” It also excludes those who cannot afford to work without pay.

Topics that haven’t been focal points for my scholarship, but that have appeared regularly on this blog, include exorbitant student loan debt, long-term unemployment for older and younger workers alike, and America’s burgeoning retirement funding crisis. In the U.S. alone, these are all symptomatic of a broken economic structure and social safety net.

Those of us who engage the world of public ideas have a change-making opportunity to be responsibly bold. We should put forth sound analyses, interpretations, and recommendations for the greater good, especially during this plutocratic, New Gilded Age that has become our reality. If that’s what being “apocalyptic” is all about, then so be it.

In addition to rethinking abundance, let’s spread it around a little better

Economist Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, suggests in an op-ed piece for the New York Times that we embrace abundance without excessive attachment to material things:

In other words, if we are lucky enough to achieve abundance, we should be thankful for it and work to share the means to create it with others around the world. The real trick is the second part of the formula: avoiding attachment.

In Tibetan, the word “attachment” is translated as “do chag,” which literally means “sticky desire.” It signifies a desperate grasping at something, motivated by fear of separation from the object. One can find such attachment in many dysfunctional corners of life, from jealous relationships to paranoia about reputation and professional standing.

In the realm of material things, attachment results in envy and avarice. Getting beyond these snares is critical to life satisfaction.

I think it’s great advice for people who are blessed with sufficient disposable income to have spending options. As I wrote here back in 2012, research suggests that the correlation between happiness and income levels tends to peak at somewhere around $75,000, subject to obvious variables such as cost of living differentials. Furthermore, studies indicate that giving to others can increase our personal happiness and that money spent on creating memorable experiences rather than on accumulating more stuff tends to be more satisfying. (Brooks acknowledges the latter point in his article.)

Abundance for some

However, at least here in the U.S., we’re living in an age of a widening wealth gap, with that $75,000 mark looking like an illusion to a majority of its citizens. Millions are living paycheck-to-paycheck, and still more are doing worse than that.

Don Lee reports for the Los Angeles Times on a new Pew Research Center study showing that the “wealth gap between middle- and upper-income households has widened to the highest level on record.” He continues:

…(T)he typical wealth of the nation’s upper-income households last year was nearly seven times that of middle-class ones. By Pew’s calculations, that is the biggest gap in the 30 years that the Fed has been collecting statistics from its Survey of Consumer Finances.

“The latest data reinforces the larger story of America’s middle-class household wealth stagnation over the past three decades,” Pew said. “The Great Recession destroyed a significant amount of middle-income and lower-income families’ wealth, and the economic ‘recovery’ has yet to be felt for them.”

An economic system that provides selective abundance

Brooks engages in some rhetorical sleight-of-hand when he says that “we should be thankful for [abundance] and work to share the means to create it with others around the world.” In other words, he’s not suggesting that we share big chunks of our own abundance with others. Rather, if you read the rest of his article, you’ll pick up an implicit defense of a market-based economic system that supposedly can provide others with abundance as well.

There’s a problem with that, of course. The economic system that has produced so much inequity over the past three decades isn’t exactly creating an abundance of opportunity these days. Steady jobs with good pay and benefits are in increasingly short supply. Around the world, the same corporate entities that took millions of those jobs out of the U.S. are now putting their manufacturing plants in countries where they can pay workers a fraction of what their American predecessors once earned.

Toward something better

If you’ve read this blog for any stretch of time, you know that I’m not going to call for a socialist utopia to replace the big, bad capitalist system. I’m way past the point of pitching any rigid economic ideology as the answer to our wealth gap. But I’ll happily repeat my belief that a robust private sector must be complemented by strong public and non-profit sectors, as well as an ethic of giving that asks more of the most fortunate. On balance we need a healthier mix of economic opportunities, regulatory safeguards for the public good, and a social safety net.

In his New York Times piece, Brooks writes that his inspiration for rethinking abundance was a travel encounter in India with “a penniless Hindu swami,” a “son of Indian petroleum engineers” in America who had traded in his MBA and the fast track for a more contemplative, austere life. That certainly provides grist for a curious narrative (well-paid think tank executive takes life lesson from ex-pat living in self-imposed poverty), but the deeper truth is that austerity and detachment from material goods are much easier to opt for voluntarily than finding yourself with no other choice.

Our economic systems, psychopathy, and bullying at work

Psychology professor Paul Verhaeghe (U. Ghent, Belgium), writing for The Guardian newspaper, suggests that three decades of “neoliberalism, free-market forces and privatization” have transformed behaviors and norms in ways that reward psychopathic personality traits:

There are certain ideal characteristics needed to make a career today. The first is articulateness, the aim being to win over as many people as possible. Contact can be superficial, but since this applies to most human interaction nowadays, this won’t really be noticed.

It’s important to be able to talk up your own capacities as much as you can…. Later, people will find out that this was mostly hot air, but the fact that they were initially fooled is down to another personality trait: you can lie convincingly and feel little guilt. That’s why you never take responsibility for your own behaviour.

On top of all this, you are flexible and impulsive, always on the lookout for new stimuli and challenges. In practice, this leads to risky behaviour, but never mind, it won’t be you who has to pick up the pieces.

Verhaeghe admits that he’s taking this description to extremes, but he notes that it draws from the “psychopathy checklist by Robert Hare, the best-known specialist on psychopathy today.”

More on psychology and economics

I’m fascinated by how psychologists are linking individual behaviors and our economic systems. In another example, at the annual workshop of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network held in 2011, psychologist Michael Britton described our current economic condition in terms of psychological illness.

Our economic system has taken on “bipolar” qualities, said Britton. Using terms and phrases such as “excited,” “frantic,” “crash and burn,” “disregard for reality,” and “disregard for empathy,” he described an economy grounded in constant consumption and concentrations of power.

Britton said that instead of worshipping at the altar of national GDP and high unemployment, we should “reduce resource stripping” and emphasize how everyone can contribute to society and live a “materially decent life.”

Psychopathy and workplace bullying

Prof. Verhaeghe further links the psychopathic dynamics of the economic system to workplace bullying:

Bullying used to be confined to schools; now it is a common feature of the workplace. This is a typical symptom of the impotent venting their frustration on the weak – in psychology it’s known as displaced aggression. There is a buried sense of fear, ranging from performance anxiety to a broader social fear of the threatening other.

I think Verhaeghe is right about “the impotent venting their frustration on the weak” when it comes to, say, a stressed-out, mid-level manager bullying and cracking the whip on his subordinates.

In addition, we must not forget that economic systems are man-made, so at the core of the problem are individuals who likely score high on Robert Hare’s psychopathy checklist. We are paying a very heavy price for senior executives, managers, and board chairs who are perfect matches for the personality profile described by Verhaeghe.

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Related posts

Is our psychologically ill economy being driven by psychologically ill business leaders? (2011)

Understanding the executive psychopath (2010)

What if our society was built around advancing human dignity and well-being?

Let’s pretend, for even a few minutes, that we could build our society around the advancement of human dignity and well-being.

What would our educational, social, economic, and governance institutions look like? How would we balance opportunity, individual responsibility, societal safety nets, and shared obligations? How would we address health care and public health issues? How would our laws and legal systems operate? How would we define our relationships with the planet and other species that inhabit it? How would we operate our workplaces?

Most importantly, how would each of us choose to conduct our own lives?

For many reasons, I think we’re at a juncture where we need to be steadfast and unapologetic about making human dignity and well-being the defining priorities for our society. The ensuing discussion may take us in many different directions, and we won’t always be in agreement about what approaches to take, but at least we’d get the framing concept right.

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Related posts

Dignity instead: The “markets and management” framework for U.S. workplace law should go (2014) — “Within such a “dignitarian” framework, there is plenty of room for market-based competition, entrepreneurship, individual responsibility, and sound management prerogative. Furthermore, the call for dignity in the workplace is not a rallying cry for state ownership, runaway taxation, or regulatory micromanagement of the workplace. Rather, it is about promoting the complementary goals of healthy, productive, and socially responsible workplaces within a mix of robust private, public, and non-profit sectors.”

Visioning law and legal systems through a psychologically healthy lens (2014) — “One of my periodic “battery rechargers” is the opportunity to reconnect in person with a network of law professors, lawyers, judges, and students associated with a school of legal thought called therapeutic jurisprudence (“TJ”), which examines law, legal procedures, and the legal profession from the standpoint of psychological health.”

Dialogues about dignity (2013), Parts I (Meeting in Manhattan), II (Mainstreaming the message), and III (Claiming and using power to do good) — “The founding president of [the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies Network] is Evelin Lindner, a physician, psychologist, and self-styled global citizen whose life mission is rooted in the displacement of her family during the ravages of the First and Second World Wars. In her remarks to the group, Evelin talked about the need to “embrace the world as our university.” She urged that in the face of powerful political and economic forces that operate to advance the interests of the most privileged, we must “build a new culture of global cohesion, global friendship.”

“Total Worker Health” vs. “Wellness” vs. “Well-Being”: Framing worker health issues (2013) —  “By the end of the conference, further informed by other discussions and panels, I had became a convert. Indeed, I realized that well-being, within the context of workplace health and safety, is a very good fit with broader questions about human dignity and employment law that I’ve been raising for several years.”

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Recycling: Five years of July

Each month I’m reaching into the archives to highlight a piece from that month of each past year. Especially for those of you who missed them the first time around, I hope they provide interesting and useful reading. For each piece I’m including a short excerpt; you may click on the title for the full article.

July 2013: Triple jeopardy: Workplace bullying at midlife — “Although ‘middle aged’ is a term that few in their 40s and 50s are eager to embrace, this phase of life typically is marked by high levels of personal and occupational achievement and productivity. The specter of workplace bullying during the ongoing economic crisis, however, tells a very different story.”

July 2012: Memo to self: “I’m swamped” may be a self-imposed condition — “We continue to ratchet up expectations for occupational and professional success. We worship the mantra of ‘work hard, play hard.’ If you don’t keep doing more, you’ll fall behind and never catch up — or perhaps miss out on that ‘big opportunity,’ even if it’s something you don’t necessarily want.”

July 2011: How well does your organization respond to employee criticism and feedback? — “In reality, organizational leaders who have the confidence to solicit and listen to worker feedback generally also are likely to have the integrity to treat allegations of wrongful behavior fairly and responsively. Poor leaders, however, are more likely to fall short on both measures.”

July 2010: Graduating into a recession — “Comparisons between the current recession and that of the early 1980s are frequent, but this one is worse.  In terms of severity, the Great Recession lies somewhere between the 80s recession and the Great Depression of the 1930s. We appear to be looking at structural changes in the labor markets, with the term “jobless recovery” frequently invoked to suggest a sluggish comeback for the stock market with little or no corresponding improvement in the employment situation.”

July 2009: Workplace bullying as a public health concern — “Transnational bodies such as the World Health Organization and International Labour Organisation have recognized the costs of workplace bullying to workers and employers, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has hosted roundtable discussions of experts on workplace bullying, linking it to workplace violence.  Hopefully these are signs that we are closer to classifying the widespread and destructive effect of workplace bullying as a legitimate public health concern.”

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