Bianca L.: “What’s a Fiftysomething to Do?”

Bianca L. spent 20 years self-employed as a top-flight publishing expert and managing editor in Northern California.  Her business fluctuated, as all businesses do, but she never worried about getting work.

Now 57, Bianca (a pseudonym) is worried. Since May 2010, when she was laid off from her job as co-founder and co-director of a Web publishing startup that has since gone bust, she has discovered that the market for her high-level skills has pretty much dried up.

“There’s not much out there that I would be interested in and would pay enough – and where they would be interested in me,” Bianca says, referring to her over-50 demographic. “So I immediately got it that I may never get another job.”

50 imageBianca L. is better off than many job seekers over 50. She is married and eligible for her husband’s health insurance. She has savings, including an inheritance, that could carry her for up to five years if she lives “on a grad student budget.” She has no children, so she doesn’t have college or other parenting expenses. She does have a mortgage on a home she loves, but she and her husband are able to rent out that home and live in his home for now. Seven years ago she started a part-time private practice as a health and wellness consultant, which now supplements her minimal unemployment compensation. She is in excellent health.

Even with these relative “advantages,” Bianca faces the same discriminatory, decimated employment landscape we all face. Her consulting practice was meant to grow by now, not shrink. Her unemployment is minimal because at her last job she agreed to part-time pay for full-time hours in exchange for a now-worthless equity stake in the company. More importantly, she has lost her once-reliable fallback – the high-paying publishing market – and with it her sense of financial security.

“It’s a struggle every month to pay the bills,” she says. “My husband is thoroughly enjoying being retired, which sure is looking good to me, but I need to keep working for the foreseeable future, at least part-time.  I’ve actually daydreamed about image of moneyworking in a bookstore or library, but both industries are laying off people, and bookstores don’t pay a living wage. What’s a fiftysomething to do?”

The experience has led Bianca to do a lot of soul searching – and number crunching – this past year. “It was basic financial planning,” she says. “I got real serious about that for the first time.”

Bianca’s approach is also philosophical. “I got this idea from a friend: The next 20 years might be your only 20 years, or will be your best 20 years because we’re all aging. So how do I make the most of the next 20 years?

“For me it’s not just about how do I find a job. For me personally, I am damn well going to enjoy the work I do. In that last job, something snapped. I can no longer ‘fake it to make it.’ So if I were to get a job it would have to be meaningful work.

“If there was any way not to have to work for somebody else, that’s what I’d do. But I have to figure out if I can afford to do that. What if I live to 90?”

In a perfect world, Bianca says, “my preference is to continue my private practice on a part-time basis until I can collect Social Security, and only draw on my IRA savings as a last resort.” In this perfect world, Bianca could always take freelance publishing gigs whenever her consulting income came up short.

But not in the real world, not anymore.

Cozy-Home by Laura Stearns JohnsonBianca also wants to see the day when she and her husband can return to the home they both invested so much time, money, and energy into making cozy. But even her home isn’t first – or second, or third – on her list of priorities now.

“The most important thing to me is my health,” she says. “That’s always been my attitude, but more so now that people close to my age are dying and getting cancer. I can’t sacrifice my health.

“The second most important thing is relationships with my spouse, my family, and my friends. So I need to find a job that works around a healthy lifestyle and balance.

“The third thing is, I cannot waste my time and energy with the wrong choices – wrong jobs, wrong bosses – just to work. If I do work, it has to be important to me and meaningful. Which to me means I have to be useful, which gets down to, I have to be helping people. That’s a nonnegotiable.”

With the very real prospect that Bianca “may never get another job” – full-time, part-time, or freelance – what’s her backup plan?

social security cardShe’s still working on it. “Ideally, I’d like to wait till I’m 70 to go on Social Security, to get the full amount. On the other hand, if I look at the amount I’d get at 62 [the earliest eligibility age for Social Security], it’s not enough. So 62 seems too early; 70 would be better. But maybe 67 would work.

“Basically, I have to figure out how to get through this next 10 years until I could collect Social Security that would give me an amount [of total income] I could live on.

“I haven’t figured that out – unless I can build up my practice. In the next year my goal is to increase the number of clients. I’ve been doing it now for seven years, and it’s work I love. It seems to be the answer. But I would have to do a lot of marketing. I now have seven years of confidence and skill building, but it’s a big ‘if.’ Maybe I will learn to use all those social media tools.

meaningful-work-logo by Heather Reinhardt“Seven years ago, I made a conscious career change that’s meaningful for me. How do I make enough money doing what I love and being self-employed?

“When I went freelance 20 years ago, the tradeoff was freedom vs. money. So I don’t have much money, but I’ve always been good at living within my means. [Long-term underemployment] comes now as a shock, but I’ve had 20 years to practice living on a freelancer’s tight budget. It’s less of a blow to me than it would be to someone’s who’s always had a steady paycheck.

“What makes it harder for baby boomers is, we know what we don’t want. I think there are a lot more nonnegotiables than there used to be. I’m not willing to waste my time on something that’s not worthwhile. That’s what makes it so tough.”

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