Illustration of the future

Money Culture

The Future of Retirement Is Now

Gray, small, and distinctly female.

This is what the director of MIT’s AgeLab, Joseph Coughlin, sees when he peers into the future of retirement.

“The context and definition of retirement is changing,” Coughlin said earlier this month at the Retirement Research Consortium meeting, where nearly two dozen researchers also presented their Consortium-funded work on a range of retirement topics. Their research summaries can be found at this link to the Center for Retirement Research, which supports this blog and is a consortium member.

Coughlin spooled out a list of stunning facts to impress on his audience the dramatic impact of rising longevity and graying populations in the developed world, and he urged them to think in fresh ways about retirement. In Japan, for example, adult diapers are outselling baby diapers. China already faces a looming worker shortage, and Germany’s population is in sharp decline. In 2047, there will be more Americans over age 60 than children under 15.

“The country will have the demographics of Florida,” Coughlin said. …Learn More

Be prepared

Behavior

Onus of Retirement Planning is on Us

Many workers are poorly prepared for retirement. Inadequate savings is a primary culprit.

But the question of why workers don’t save enough was debated by our readers in comments posted to a recent article. The article pertained to a new study showing that life gets in the way of saving, which is derailed by major disruptions such as unemployment or a large, unexpected medical bill.

“This confirms my thinking that the major reason for not saving is spotty employment and a lack of money,” Chuck Miller wrote in his comment posted to “Here’s Why People Don’t Save.” Debi Street agreed: “It is also the quotidian reality of too many people in low-wage, precarious jobs with no surplus to save.”

The research study also tested an alternative explanation for insufficient savings: procrastination. The procrastination theory was not supported by the analysis.

Readers, however, would not let people off the hook so easily. “What’s that old saying? ‘Failing to plan is planning to fail,’ ” said Brian Jarvis. “That planning is certainly impacted by procrastination, which then leads to being … unprepared for life’s disruptions.”

A reader who calls herself Retirement Coffee Shop knows “more than a few people who just disregard the notion of saving for the future. They have lived their lives like there is no tomorrow and spend money on any and everything they want.”

On another matter central to retirement planning – Social Security – readers didn’t criticize. They just offered practical advice.

The article, “Workers Overestimate their Social Security,” described research showing that workers of all ages have a poor grasp of how much they’ll receive in their monthly Social Security checks when they retire.

Specifically, the workers’ estimates were higher than the more precise benefit projections made by the researchers, based on each individual’s earnings history. Not surprisingly, young adults, who have more pressing matters on their minds than retirement, were farthest off the mark.

Several readers made the same suggestion: get the facts. “Go online and look at your SSA statement,” said Lynn. “It lists your FRA [monthly benefit] amount” – at the full retirement age – “as well as estimated amounts at 62 and 70.” …Learn More

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Behavior

Big Picture Helps with Retirement Finances

The prospect of retiring opens a Pandora’s box of questions. But one big question dominates all the others: How will I manage my finances when I retire?

This is a vexing problem, and baby boomers could use some help thinking it through. To ease the process, a team at UCLA and Cornell University led by David Zimmerman, a UCLA doctoral student, created an online decision tool. In an experiment, they found that the tool might help future retirees understand how to smooth out their income over many years and make their savings last.

The results are preliminary, and the researchers are refining their analysis. But for the initial experiment, they recruited 400 people, ages 40 through 63. The participants were instructed to use the tool to make three big retirement decisions: starting Social Security, choosing a 401(k)-withdrawal strategy, and deciding whether to purchase an annuity. Their decisions would be on behalf of a 60-year-old who is single and plans to retire in two years. He earns $55,000 and has $250,000 in savings to work with.

The participants were split into two comparison groups. One group received immediate feedback on the impact of each separate decision. For example, when the participants picked a Social Security starting age for the hypothetical person, a chart showed a horizontal line tracking the fixed annual benefit locked in by that decision.

When they moved on to another page and selected a plan for 401(k) withdrawals, a chart showed the age when the savings would probably run out. The final decision was whether to buy a deferred annuity with some portion, or all, of the 401(k) assets. The chart on this page displayed the fixed income the annuity would generate every year for as long as the person lives.

The participants were encouraged to change their decisions as much as they liked to see how a change affected that particular source of income. But the researchers suspected that seeing each decision in isolation doesn’t help to clarify how various decisions work together to determine total retirement income over time.

So, the second group got to see the big picture. The chart in this case displayed the impact of any single decision on the annual income from all sources.Learn More

Research

Pandemic Puts More Retirements at Risk

Worsening Retirement Outlook figureAmericans’ retirement outlook has gone from bleak to bleaker.

The unemployment caused by COVID-19 has pushed up the share of working-age households not able to afford their current standard of living in retirement from 50 percent to 55 percent, according to a new analysis by the Center for Retirement Research, which sponsors this blog.

The analysis updates a previous estimate, based on 2016 data, to include the harmful effects of surging unemployment. The researchers estimate that perhaps 30 percent of workers – far more than is reflected in the monthly jobless rate – could be affected by layoffs now and in the future. They did not factor in the recession’s impact on the housing and financial markets, which could make things worse.

Unemployment hurts retirement in a variety of ways. Laid-off workers’ paychecks vanish immediately, but they may also earn less in the next job. The depressed earnings, over months or years, reduce the money flowing into their 401(k)s, and the amount they’ll receive in pensions and future Social Security benefits. It may also force some to spend down savings that, had they not lost their jobs, would’ve been preserved for retirement.

Interestingly, the impact on low-income workers is mixed. In one way, they’re protected by Social Security’s progressive benefit formula, which will replace a higher percentage of their earnings as their lifetime earnings decline. But low-income workers have had more layoffs, which widens the gap in their retirement savings – between what they can save and what they should be saving – more than for higher-income people.

The 2020 recession will impact retirement “in a very different way” than the Great Recession, the researchers said. This time, “the destruction is occurring more through widespread unemployment and less through a collapse in the value of financial assets and housing.” However, the lessons of the previous recession can’t be dismissed either. …Learn More

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On the Web

Boomers Want to Make Retirement Work

The articles that our readers gravitated to over the course of this year provide a window into baby boomers’ biggest concerns about retirement.

Judging by the most popular blogs of 2019, they were very interested in the critical decision of when to claim Social Security and whether the money they have saved will be enough to last into old age.

Nearly half of U.S. workers in their 50s could potentially fall short of the income they’ll need to live comfortably in retirement. So people are also reading articles about whether to extend their careers and about other ways they might fill the financial gap.

Here is a list of 10 of our most popular blogs in 2019. Please take a look!

Half of Retirees Afraid to Use Savings

How Long Will Retirement Savings Last?

The Art of Persuasion and Social Security

Social Security: the ‘Break-even’ Debate

Books: Where the Elderly Find Happiness

Second Careers Late in Life Extend WorkLearn More

Social Security poster

Research

Readers Debate Retirement Issues

It’s always interesting to see which Squared Away blogs get the strongest reaction from our readers. The June blog, “Husbands Ignore Future Widows’ Needs,” was one of them.

Some readers felt that the results of the study described in the article don’t match up with their experiences. The researchers determined that husbands often are not sensitive to the fact that if they sign up for Social Security in their early 60s, they could be locking in a smaller survivor benefit one day for their widows.

“The elderly couples with whom I do retirement planning are typically very conscious of each other’s needs,” said a critic named Jerry.

But financial planner Kathleen Rehl has the opposite experience when working with couples. “Most couples hadn’t previously known their options and ramifications of those choices,” she said. “Such an important planning concept.”

The blog was based on a study conducted for the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium – consortium studies by researchers around the country are featured regularly on Squared Away.

Here are other 2019 articles about the consortium’s research on various retirement and labor market issues that readers weighed in on: …Learn More

Research

Divorce Very Bad for Retirement Finances

divorce chartWhen a marriage ends in divorce, there are no fewer than seven ways that it could damage a person’s finances.

Divorce can rack up costly legal fees; force a house or stock sale in a down market; increase living expenses; increase tax rates; hamper the ability of the primary caregiver – mothers – to earn money; require fathers to pay alimony; and reduce each partner’s access to credit.

A new study looking at their impact on workers’ future finances concludes that divorce – the fate of four in 10 marriages – “substantially increases the likelihood” that their standard of living will decline after they retire. …Learn More

Field Work

Health in Old Age: the Great Unknown

cartoonThis cartoon, by Vancouver Sun cartoonist Graham Harrop, hits on one of retirees’ biggest mysteries: their future health.

The elderly live with the anxiety of getting a grave illness that isn’t easy to fix, such as cancer or a stroke.  And despite having Medicare insurance, they also have to worry how much it would cost them and whether they would run through all of their savings.

They’re right to worry. Health care costs increase as people age from their 50s into their 60s and 70s. About one in five baby boomers between 55 and 64 pays extraordinary out-of-pocket medical expenses in any given year. But by 75, the odds increase to one in four, according to a report summarizing the reasons that some seniors’ finances become fragile.

Large, unexpected medical expenses are one of two major financial shocks that threaten their security – widowhood is the other. A small and unlucky share of retirees will find it difficult to absorb a spike in their medical costs, forcing them to cut back on food or medications, the report said.

Harrop’s cartoon is the product of his cousin’s inspired suggestion that he fill a book with cartoons about the humorous accommodations made between couples who’ve lived together for decades. The book – “Living Together after Retirement: or, There’s a Spouse in the House” – reveals his personal knowledge of the subject. Harrop, who is 73, has lived with his partner, Annie, for more than 20 years.Learn More