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Elizabeth White: How Have This Century's Financial Crises Affected Older Adults?

Dec 11, 2020
Originally published on April 16, 2021 8:20 am

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode A Century Of Money.

At age 55, Elizabeth White lost her job--and her entire safety net--in the 2008 recession. Her story isn't uncommon. White says, now more older adults are pushed out of their jobs and into poverty.

About Elizabeth White

Elizabeth White is an author and advocate for older adults facing uncertain work and financial insecurity. White is the author of 55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal, a book about the millions of older Americans who are facing the prospect of downward mobility in old age.

She served as Special Advisor to the Executive Director of Senior Service America. Before joining SSA, she was the Chief Operating Officer of a midsize non-profit focused on improving economic conditions in Africa. She is also an entrepreneur, having co-founded and led a chain of decorative home stores in Washington, DC, Philadelphia, and New York. She began her career in international development at the World Bank.

She holds an MBA from Harvard Business School, a master's in International Studies from Johns Hopkins University, and a bachelor's in Political Science from Oberlin College.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


So Elizabeth just mentioned that the U.S. doesn't have a jobs crisis right now; it really has a good jobs crisis, which means that a lot of people can't earn enough to afford the very basics. And so maybe we need to ask a bigger question, like what responsibility do employers, especially big corporations, have to their lowest-paid workers? For our next speaker, that question is key to building a more stable economy.

Can you please introduce yourself and tell us what you do?

ABIGAIL DISNEY: I am Abigail Disney, and I am a filmmaker. And I guess you would call me a philanthropist and an activist.

ZOMORODI: OK, wait - so Abigail Disney.

DISNEY: Oh, yes, Disney. Yes.

ZOMORODI: Like, that Disney.

DISNEY: That one (laughter). Yeah.

ZOMORODI: What is your connection to Disney World, Disney films, Mickey Mouse, all those things?

DISNEY: So my grandfather was Roy O. Disney, who was Walt Disney's brother. They co-founded the company together in the 1920s. My father was Roy E. Disney, who was at the company for - I don't know - 50, 60 years, most of his adult life, as different things, including the co-chair of the board.

ZOMORODI: Abigail never worked for the Disney Corporation herself, but she is a shareholder. And growing up, Disney was a big part of her life.

DISNEY: It was very much my upbringing. And I did ride with my grandfather on the first boat in the first Small World ride, so that was awesome.

ZOMORODI: Oh, my God. I'm going to tell my mother-in-law that. She's going to die. That's, like, her favorite thing ever.

Abigail Disney picks up the story in her TED Talk.


DISNEY: Two things I remember the best about going to Disneyland with my grandfather - the first thing was he always gave me a stern warning that if I ever sassed anybody who worked there, I was in deep doo-doo when we got home. He said, these people work really hard, harder than you can imagine, and they deserve your respect. The other is that he never walked by a piece of garbage, inside of Disneyland or anywhere else, where he didn't bend over to pick it up. He said, no one's too good to pick up a piece of garbage.

In Grandpa's day, a job at Disneyland was not a gig. A person could expect to own a home, raise a family, access decent health care, retire in some security on just what he earned there at the park. Mind you; Grandpa fought the unions, and he fought them hard. He wasn't an angel, and everyone wasn't well and fairly treated across the company, something that's well-known. But I think in his core, he had a very deep commitment to the idea that he had a moral obligation to every human being that worked for him. That actually wasn't such an uncommon attitude for CEOs of the day.


ZOMORODI: What's really fascinating to me is that you say in your grandfather's day, people who worked at Disneyland had a secure job.

DISNEY: Right.

ZOMORODI: They could expect a comfortable life.

DISNEY: Right. Well, it has to be, first of all, put in the context of - look. There were no people of color working there, and women couldn't have any of the jobs that the men had. So let's be very clear that I'm not talking about some halcyon time where everything was fine. But in that time, a person, even the people who were sweeping the sidewalk in those days, had a salary. And with that salary came, you know, a retirement plan, sick days, health care and all of the things that we associate with a thriving middle class. And one by one by one, at Disney and everywhere else in the American economy, those things were stripped away.

And I went to Disneyland once in my 30s and, you know, kind of gave them my special card that has my name on it that gets me free tickets. And there was one employee in the guest services window who handed me back my card and my tickets and a note saying, you have to help us.

ZOMORODI: Did you know what he was referring to?

DISNEY: Yeah. Oh, yeah, I did. I didn't want to believe it at first, either, but they weren't exaggerating anything. And when I sat down with people in a room full of 25 people and I asked, how many of you are on food stamps, and every hand in the room went up, I wanted to throw up on the spot. I was so angry.


DISNEY: When my grandfather died in 1971, a new mindset was beginning to take hold of the American and, eventually, the global imagination. Jiminy Cricket got shown the door by economist Milton Friedman, among others, who popularized the idea of shareholder primacy. Milton Friedman's pivotal op-ed in the New York Times was followed by decades of concerted organizing and lobbying by business-focused activists, along with a sustained assault on every law and regulation that had once held businesses' worst impulses in check.

And soon enough, this new mindset had taken hold across every business school and across every sector. Profits were to be pursued by any means necessary. Unions were kneecapped. Taxes were slashed, and with the same machete, so was the safety net. The bottom line is that everything that turns a gig into a livelihood was stripped away from an American worker. Job security, paid sick days, vacation time - all of that went away even as the wealthy saw their networks float to unprecedented and, yes, unusable levels.


ZOMORODI: Abigail, you are now one of the most outspoken critics of the Disney Corporation, the company that bears your name. And you say it's because of how much things have changed. Like, today the workers at the parks - they're no longer salaried. They're paid by the hour. I read that most of them make as little as 10 or $11 an hour. And a lot of the benefits were, as you say in your talk, stripped away.

DISNEY: Exactly. Disney, like every other company, messes around with people's hours when they're an hourly worker. So they really try to keep the least number of people possible working enough so they qualify for health care.

ZOMORODI: And so what is your view? Like, what happened?

DISNEY: So a lot of laws are passed. Regulations were taken away. Tax laws were changed to sort of support these skyrocketing compensation packages and all of that. But I believe even though we need laws to get ourselves back to a better place - a better balance, anyway - what really shifted was norms.

So my grandfather was not a perfect man by any stretch of the imagination. But he would never have taken a $66 million payday in a million years, in part because you just didn't do that then - there was no law against it, but you didn't do it - and partly because if he looked at his workers and they didn't have enough money to put food on the table, I just cannot imagine a universe in which he would have said that was fine with him. And, you know, that's not special to my grandfather. That was how CEOs rolled. There were bad actors, and there were terrible people. But the norms at the time were so different.


DISNEY: For almost a century, Disney has turned a pretty profit on the idea that families are a kind of magic, that love is important, that imaginations matter. That's why it turns your stomach a little bit when I tell you that Cinderella might be sleeping in her car. But let's be very clear. This is not just about Disney. This is structural, and this is systemic. No single CEO on his own is culpable, and no single company has the wherewithal to buck this. The analysts, pundits, the politicians, the business school curricula and the social norms drive the shape of the contemporary economy.

Disney is just doing what everybody else does, and they're not even the worst offender. If I told you how bad it was for workers at Amazon or McDonald's or Walmart or any one of a thousand other places you've never heard of, it's not going to hit you as viscerally as if I tell you that 73% of the people who smile when you walk in, who help you comfort that crying baby, who maybe help you have the best vacation you ever had can't consistently put food on the table. It's supposed to be the happiest place on Earth.

ZOMORODI: So because of the pandemic, the Disney parks have let go of tens of thousands of workers.

DISNEY: Yeah - 28,000.

ZOMORODI: What are your thoughts on that?

DISNEY: They have 200,000 employees. They let 28,000 go, laid them off. Twenty-eight thousand out of 200,000 - pretty significant bite out of your workforce. Not one of those people was in management, and they had also very quietly acted to make sure that the management structure could keep compensation packages intact.

Now, I understand the revenues have been eviscerated, but just know that from 2011 to 2019 - so eight years - the company had made $11.5 billion in share buybacks. A share buyback is when a company buys shares of its own stock. They do that to drive the price up and to make shareholders happy. It also has the nice ancillary benefit of making the CEO and other people who are compensated in shares happy as well.

No one could have seen the pandemic coming. No one could have said we're going to be hit by this thing. But anyone could have foreseen that something bad would have happened for which you should have cash. So this company went from historic profitability and the happiest shareholders on Earth to, less than a year later, laying off 28,000 people and pleading poverty.

ZOMORODI: OK. So let's talk about what you would like to see happen. I mean, we started this episode with a crash course in the Depression in the 1920s and understanding what radical changes came out of that with the government, with the way we think about money. And I just want to ask you - we've had now a century of these lessons. Do you think we need another moment where we have a reckoning and say, you know, we need to fix the system; let's set up a better way of doing this?

DISNEY: So what I want to see happen is if I'm a CEO and I know that some of my workers are on food stamps or going to food pantries, I want to be ashamed of myself. I want other people to feel shame on my behalf. The fact that that's not happening says that the CEO considers himself to be of a class and even a species different and distinct from the people who do the hardest work at the company.

The billionaires in this country have gotten much, much, much richer in the pandemic because they've taken advantage of what people needed. I was hoping the pandemic would force us all to say, oh, my God. Now I see it. Look at the way we're treating the people who do the essential work, you know? And the opposite kind of happens, you know? The Bezoses and everyone else kind of doubled down on the old behaviors.

ZOMORODI: And what do you - how do you respond if one of them says, like, well, you know, I hear you about wanting to provide more of a safety net to our least well-paid employees, but, Abigail, I got to run a company here, and you just don't know what it takes to survive in this market? What do you say to that?

DISNEY: What I say is they're humans working in your company, human beings. They have all the same needs and desires that you have. You have to treat them with the dignity you would want to be treated with yourself. Like, that's just the starting point. Then go make all the profit you want to make. But if your business plan starts with exploitation and you can't make - get to profitability without doing that, then you need to go get another business plan. If you really care about your employees - Jeff Bezos, I'm talking to you right now - you should pay them well and maybe make less money and make sure everybody else is making more. They're your fellow human beings, after all. All they want is lives with dignity.

ZOMORODI: That's Abigail Disney. By the way, shortly after we taped this interview, Disney announced that they're laying off another 4,000 workers. You can find Abigail's full talk at ted.com.

Thank you so much for listening to our show this week about a century of money. To learn more about the people who were on it, go to ted.npr.org. And to see hundreds more TED talks, check out ted.com or the TED app.

Our TED radio production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Rachel Faulkner, Diba Mohtasham, James Delahoussaye, J.C. Howard, Katie Monteleone, Maria Paz Gutierrez, Christina Cala and Matthew Cloutier with help from Daniel Shukin. Our intern is Farrah Safari. Special thanks this week to William Snow (ph) for providing a voiceover. Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Michelle Quint. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you have been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.