Thankful pumpkins

Giving Thanks in Trying Times

In this difficult time, there many things to be thankful for: our family’s good health, our medical workers and scientists, our cleaning crews, grocery store workers and delivery drivers. We must also remember the people who have lost loved ones.

To stay safe, millions of Americans have scaled back tomorrow’s meal to a modest event. But we hope that all of our blog readers can find comfort in the things that we can be thankful for.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Read our blog posts in our ongoing coverage of COVID-19.Learn More

How Long Will You Live? Try This

How often do you eat red meat? Do you exercise regularly? Cancer in your family? Did you go to college?

These questions – among the varied and complex predictors of longevity – are packed into a calculator that will estimate how long you could live. The calculator was created by Dr. Thomas Perls, an expert on longevity and the genetics of aging at Boston University.

Articles about the links between longevity and diet and lifestyle are perennial fodder for the popular press and health magazines. But Dr. Perls’ research dives deeper – into genetics.

In his work with geneticists, statisticians and computer scientists, he has studied the connections between genetics and people with exceptional longevity – nonagenerians (people living into their 90s), centenarians (living past 100), and super-centenarians (living past 110). His research has predicted, with a high level of accuracy, who makes it to the most advanced old ages based on hundreds of their genetic markers.

An interesting finding for women’s longevity involves the age their children were born: “Twenty percent of female centenarians had children after the age of 40 compared with 5 percent of [all] women from their birth cohort,” according to Dr. Perls.

His calculator also asks about attitude, specifically whether you’re aging well or dreading old age. Indeed, some research has found that optimism may contribute to a long life. Ike Newcomer, who was 107 when AARP shot the above video a few years ago, revealed a sunny disposition.

“I can’t really think of which was my best day,” Newcomer said. “They were all good.”

Dr. Perls’ calculator gave me some good news – I could live to 95. It would be nice if I take after my maternal grandmother, two of her brothers, my maternal great grandfather and a couple of great great aunts. All of them lived well into their 90s.

How long will you live? It takes just a few minutes to use the calculator – try it, if you dare. …Learn More

Blue-Collar Workers Often Retire Early

Construction workers

Construction and factory workers, truck drivers, and cleaning crews don’t always have the flexibility to work a few extra years to beef up their monthly Social Security checks.

Several blog readers stressed this point in their comments on a recent blog article, “Changing Social Security: Who’s Affected.”

Lorraine Porto retired from a desk job, but her family is filled with craftsmen, carpenters, electricians, farmers, and truckers who worked “until they were worn out.”

People in white-collar jobs don’t always appreciate “just how tough and demanding it is” to climb poles every day, descend into manholes, build skyscrapers, or bring in the hay in 90-degree heat and sub-zero temperatures, Porto said.

Her comment was in response to the article, which described a study about a hypothetical increase in Social Security’s retirement ages. It found that if Congress were to increase the earliest possible age for starting Social Security from 62 currently to 64, blue-collar workers would have much more of an adjustment to make.

Blue-collar workers, Kenneth Wegner wrote, “are less physically able to remain in their jobs.”

Policymakers are well aware of this concern, and a proposal to increase the early retirement age isn’t currently on the table. Yet many people are deciding to postpone retirement on their own. The general trend in recent decades is for all workers – even some people in physically demanding jobs – to delay when they collect Social Security.

That wasn’t possible for Mark Roberts. The former electrician, who worked on construction sites in Austin, Texas, said he had to go on disability due to an old foot injury that got worse over time. Now 67, he said he wasn’t able to work long enough or earn enough to save for retirement and ekes out an existence on his Social Security checks.

“I have to survive for a month on what I used to make every week,” he said.

White-collar workers who lose their jobs can also find themselves in a similar predicament. …Learn More

High Fees Tied to Mutual Fund Complexity

When David Marotta is investing his clients’ money in mutual funds, he scrutinizes the fees.

SP500 Index FundsTo demonstrate why fees are so important, Marotta charted the fees and 10-year returns for dozens of index funds in the Standard & Poor’s 500 family. Since these funds all track the same index and their performance is roughly the same, the fees will largely determine how much of the return the investor keeps and how much goes to the mutual fund company.

“The larger the fee the less that it performs. It’s kind of a straight line,said the Charlottesville, Virginia investment manager. “Anytime we’re picking a fund” for a client, “we’re trying to find the lowest-cost fund that we can find in that sector.”

The fees for the S&P 500 index funds he analyzed using Morningstar data ranged from one-tenth of a percent to 2.5 percent of the invested assets.

The issue of fees versus performance is more complicated for actively managed investments, which sometimes have strong returns that justify paying a higher fee. But in any investment, the true measure of how it’s doing is the after-fee return.

However, deciphering mutual fund fee disclosures can be extremely difficult for do-it-yourself 401(k) and IRA investors – and that is by design.

An analysis of S&P 500 index funds identified numerous narrative techniques in mutual fund documents that confuse investors. The researchers – from the University of Washington, MIT, and The Wharton School – evaluated each fund’s disclosures and showed that funds with more complex explanations of their investment holdings and fees also have higher fees. The researchers call this “strategic obfuscation.”

The study, which covered the period from 1994 through 2017, illustrated this complexity with two firms’ descriptions of their S&P 500 index funds. Schwab’s one-sentence summary gets right to the point: “The fund’s goal is to track the total return of the S&P 500 index.” This fund’s annual fee is 0.02 percent of the assets.

Deutsche Bank’s disclosure is more complicated for a few different reasons. First, the summary is three paragraphs and starts this way: “The fund seeks to provide investment results that, before expenses, correspond to the total return of common stocks…” …Learn More

Photo of a pill bottle

Opioids and Workers with Disabilities

Everyone knows about the dangers of opioid addiction. But prescription opioids can be useful to people with physical disabilities if they ease their pain so they can hold down a job.

A new study finds that this might be occurring in certain parts of the country where more opioid prescriptions are written.

But this finding is at odds with other evidence in the study that these same areas also see increased enrollment in Social Security’s disability program. A possible increase in employment is puzzling, since this program has strict limits on how much people can earn.

Adibah Abdulhadi at the University of Wisconsin reconciled her seemingly contradictory findings this way: some people with disabilities, including some who rely on opioids, may be working more – but if they are, they’re mostly in part-time jobs.

Under Social Security’s benefit rules, workers on disability can keep their benefits if their earnings do not exceed the program limit of $1,260 per month in 2020. A part-time job can be a way to stay below this income threshold.

The impact of opioid use on the labor market was analyzed on a county-by-county basis. In counties with higher opioid prescription activity, the unemployment rate fell by eight-tenths of 1 percentage point over the study’s four-year period, though this result wasn’t conclusive.

The decline was also confined to the most urban counties, which tend to have more robust job markets than rural areas and also more employers that can accommodate workers’ disabilities. Strikingly, the higher prescription activity was also linked to an increase in part-time employment.

While the impact of prescription activity on employment is inconclusive, the impact on disability is clear. “Greater use of opioids consistently leads to greater use” of disability insurance, Abdulhadi said.

To read this study, authored by Adibah Abdulhadi, see “The Effects of Opioids on Labor Market Outcomes and Use of Social Security Disability Insurance.”Learn More

Does Retiring Cause Memory Loss?

After four or five decades of work, retirement is liberating! It’s gonna be great! Right?

Well, not necessarily. It depends on how you retire.

In this video, Ross Andel, director of the School of Aging Studies at the University of South Florida, warns that a risk to retiring is that it can “speed up the aging of our brain. It could make us slower and more forgetful.”

His research demonstrates how work and retirement influence brain functioning. He tested the memories of people in their early 60s living in Canberra, Australia. Every four years, they were asked to remember as many random and unrelated words in a list as they could.

Naturally, they couldn’t remember as many words at 74 as at 62. “This is quite normal,” he said.

More interesting was what Andel found when he separated the test results for the retirees from the results for the older individuals who were still working. The decline in memory was almost exclusively among the retirees.

“Something seems to happen around the time of retirement to make people more forgetful,” he said.

Andel isn’t recommending that you work until you drop. He does provide a roadmap for limiting memory loss so you can enjoy retirement.

To find out what he has in mind, you’ll have to watch the video. …Learn More

Man building a house

Changing Social Security: Who’s Affected

Due to the strength and agility required for physical labor, half of blue-collar workers sign up for Social Security as soon as they’re eligible – at age 62.

But a large majority of white-collar workers wait so they can lock in a larger monthly check for retirement.

White-collar vs Blue-collar age 62In a new study, Lindsay Jacobs at the University of Wisconsin found that blue- and white-collar workers would also respond very differently to potential increases in the program’s two benchmark ages: the earliest eligibility age and the full retirement age.

Raising the earliest eligibility age to 64 would not change retirees’ lifetime benefits. But a two-year hike in the full retirement age would amount to a significant benefit cut – and with the depletion of Social Security’s trust fund projected for 2035, some version of this change might one day be considered.

The first change – raising Social Security’s earliest claiming age – would require a much bigger adjustment by blue-collar workers. Jacobs predicted that this group would respond by working an extra year, on average, compared with a few more months for white-collar workers.

Requiring workers to wait longer for their benefits does have a financial advantage: a larger Social Security check every month. The problem for some blue-collar workers is that they couldn’t make it to 64. One result, then, is that increasing the early retirement age would push up applications to Social Security’s disability program, according to the study funded by the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.

Jacobs gauged the impact of raising the early retirement age based on how quickly workers’ declining health would affect their ability to work as they age. To understand how they would react to raising the full retirement age, she examined how workers’ decisions about retiring, saving, and signing up for Social Security would change under various policies. She classified the workers as blue- or white-collar using data that describes job tasks to show that the physical demands at work influence these decisions.

The second possible change would increase the full retirement age by two years, which amounts to an across-the-board cut in benefits regardless of when workers claim them. In response, white-collar workers, who are already more inclined to hold out until the full retirement age, would be more likely to work even longer to reach the new, higher benchmark age.

But blue-collar workers would bear the brunt of the benefit cuts, because their physically demanding jobs would often prevent them from working longer to offset the cuts. …
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