Retiring in Florida: The Villages vs Reality

Photo of golf carts in a row

May all your dreams come true.

This hope, displayed on a sign in The Villages retirement community in north central Florida, is why thousands of people flock there every year to retire.

During my annual holiday trek to visit my 84-year-old mother in Orlando, my husband and I drove her to The Villages to visit her good friend who had moved there. What struck me was the contrast between its over-the-top comforts and my mother’s modest retirement community just outside Orlando, where many of the residents, who heavily depend on their Social Security, are just barely getting by.

The differences in lifestyles reflect the retirement disparities that exist in this country and are a continuation of the disparities in our working population. But I was also struck by the similarities in what retirees – regardless of their socioeconomic status – are seeking: to live out their remaining days healthy and without worry.

The Villages is 32-square-miles of unbridled growth. The 55+ community features three Disney-like town squares – Spanish Springs, Brownwood, and Sumter Lake – with a fourth, Southern Oaks, under development. Retirees zip along in colorful golf carts through the perfectly landscaped grounds on paths that were designed for the vehicles. The residents use the golf carts to move between their tidy houses, the town squares, activity centers, and one of The Villages’ 53 golf courses and 100 pickle ball courts. There’s even a gas station for golf carts – that’s how integral they are to retirees’ lives.

It seems that the box stores and supermarkets have been placed on the edges of this sprawling development so as not to spoil the vibe – retirees drive cars to these destinations. Also on the periphery are establishments catering to the unappealing aspects of growing old: laser eye surgery centers, dialysis centers, assisted living facilities, and funeral homes. Old age is tough – even in The Villages. For example, my mother’s friend lost her husband and then – a few years later – her fiancé died.

Photo of a man golfingThe Villages’ creature comforts are expensive. Prices are high by the standards of Florida’s interior, ranging between $250,000 and $800,000. Residents often pay for them by selling a house up north to cash in on the appreciation. They also pay an assessment to cover the development’s infrastructure costs and a monthly fee of just over $1,000 for utilities, trash pickup and endless amenities, which, in addition to golf, include numerous activity centers, lakes for fishing, and easy access to the town centers’ restaurants, Starbucks, shopping, and movie theaters.

But this enclave of privilege and play doesn’t reflect the reality for most retirees. My straight-talking Midwestern mom’s assessment of The Villages is, simply, “I can’t afford it.” …Learn More

Retiree Living Standards, Ranked by State

How well you will live in retirement will depend on two things: your income and the local cost of living.

A new study that ranks each state based on how many of its retirees can meet a basic standard of living comes up with an interesting combination of places that are financially friendly – or not – to people over 65.

For example, who would expect Mississippi to be in the same company with California?

The cost of living in Mississippi is much lower than in California – and most states. But 31 percent of Mississippi’s retired single people and 24 percent of its retired couples fall into what the study calls the “gap” between being poor and having barely enough income to cover their basic expenses, according to a 50-state analysis by the University of Massachusetts’ Gerontology Institute in Boston.

Map of retired couples in the gap between poor and comfortableA general way to think about the people inhabiting this gap is that, while they are above the poverty line, they are still financially insecure.

“A lot of the folks who find themselves in the gap were middle class,” said Jan Mutchler, a U-Mass Boston professor and institute staff member. They have pensions or other income in addition to Social Security, she said, “and yet they’re still struggling.”

When the poor are added in, a total of 57 percent of Mississippi’s retired singles and 30 percent of its couples do not have the income required to pay for all of their essential household expenses, according to the analysis.

Like Mississippi, the share of older Californians who are feeling financially insecure is also one of the highest in the country: 34 percent of single people and 22 percent of couples. When poor retirees are included, the numbers rise to 54 percent and 27 percent, respectively.

Many people in California and Mississippi are having a difficult time – but for very different reasons. …Learn More

Artwork depicting depression

Credit Cards are the Most Stressful Debt

Debt is stressful. But did you know your stress level depends on the type of debt you have?

Credit cards cause far more stress than first mortgages and lines of credit, a study by Ohio State researchers finds. The more striking finding is that reverse mortgages, which allow people over age 62 to tap the equity in their homes, may reduce stress – at least temporarily.

The researchers used a simple example to illustrate the magnitude of credit card stress. Charging $640 on a card is as stress-producing as adding $10,000 to a mortgage. Credit cards are more stressful than home loans, because the balances on high-rate cards increase quickly when they’re not paid off, and the debt is not backed by an asset.

The researchers considered households to be debt-stressed if they said in a survey that they have had recent difficulty paying bills or have generally experienced financial strains.

This study focused on people over 62. As the share of older Americans carrying debt into retirement has increased, so have the amounts they owe. Debt arguably is very stressful for older workers, who have a dwindling number of years to get their finances under control before retiring, and for retirees, who have to live on fixed incomes.

The findings for reverse mortgages were nuanced – and interesting. Reverse mortgages create less stress than a standard mortgage and are much less stressful than consumer debt. On average, four years after taking out a reverse mortgage, the household’s stress level is 18 percent lower than it was at the time of the loan’s origination, according to the researchers, who did the study for the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.

But things can change over time. Retirees often use federally insured reverse mortgages to pay off debt or as a regular source of income. But the amount owed on a reverse mortgage increases over time, because retirees do not have to make payments, and the interest compounds. (The loans are paid off when the owner either sells the house or dies.) …
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Photo of the inside of a computer

Older Workers Ride Out Computer Age

The computer revolution, unleashed in the 1970s, has not stopped. Minicomputers replaced mainframes, and IBM introduced its personal computer. Then came the Internet, laptops, robots, iPhones, and increasingly intelligent software that can drive cars and discern music preferences.

Continual technological change has reshaped and regenerated the economy several times over, creating new types of jobs unimaginable a few years earlier. But the past four decades have also been tumultuous for the workers who were either replaced by machines or couldn’t keep up with the evolving demands of their jobs.

This is a pressing issue for the older workers who would benefit from working longer to improve their retirement finances. An erosion in their physical stamina or mental agility conceivably makes them more vulnerable to losing out to progress. And it can be difficult for people who have invested years in a job to train for and find new employment.

But a new study of labor force trends by the Center for Retirement Research finds this has not been the case. The computer age has had about the same impact on workers over age 55 as it has had on the labor force overall.

Two factors have proved essential to whether people – whatever their age – have had job security in this period of change: whether the work is routine and whether it requires a college education.

Since the 1970s, job options have narrowed for many workers who did not attend college, because computers have been especially good at rapidly and tirelessly performing the routine tasks this group’s work often entails. Examples are the computerized financial transactions that replaced back-office workers who entered the data manually and the robots inserted into assembly lines. The more routine a worker’s job, the more vulnerable he is to being replaced by a machine.

The upshot is that this segment of the labor force is shrinking: roughly a third of U.S. workers hold routine jobs currently, down from more than half in 1979. Nevertheless, the magnitude of this decline has been roughly the same for workers over 50 as for the labor force overall, according to the study, which was conducted for the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.

In contrast, computerization has not affected the demand for non-routine work that is physical in nature, such as construction and food preparation. These jobs typically do not require a college education either, but it has been virtually impossible to program computers to do non-repetitive work. “The rules governing our innate abilities are a mystery,” and this has protected jobs that emphasize uniquely human abilities, the researchers said.Learn More

Photo of an automotive production line.

Workers, Machines and Constant Change

Anyone who drives on the nation’s toll roads has used a job-eliminating device: electronic tollgates.

Unemployment due to new technologies – and workers’ resistance to them – are as old as the industrial revolution. In the early 1900s, glassblowers were replaced by mechanized bottle makers. Today, autoworkers are no longer necessary to bolt car parts to carriages – robots do it with speed and precision. Toll takers are the latest disappearing breed.

Workers who lose their jobs to progress face painful transitions, and pessimists throughout history have warned about technologies increasingly rendering human effort obsolete. Indeed, jobs can seem to vanish overnight after an entire industry or occupation adopts a laborsaving machine, presenting displaced individuals with difficult choices. They must either invest in a new skill or move into a low-skill, lower-paying job.

But in the long arc of history, technology is continually creating new jobs to replace the old ones.

“The cycle of job destruction and creation has produced a labor force where, over the long run, workers have generally found jobs – albeit jobs that largely did not exist 100 years ago,” concludes the Center for Retirement Research in the first of three reports on technology’s impact on older workers for the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.

The changing nature of work encourages new forms of growth by expanding the economic pie.  For example, about a third of U.S. workers used to be on the farm before being largely replaced by agricultural machinery like combines and threshers, the report said. But during and after World War II, new technologies adopted by industry supplied manufacturing and office jobs to the farmers who had migrated to the cities to work. Wages rose and the economy grew rapidly during this period of unprecedented abundance.

Another way that technology helps the economy is by making goods cheaper to produce and buy, freeing up demand for other products. For example, Americans spend 15 percent of their budgets on food – less than half of what they spent in 1900 before farms became fully mechanized. More money for cell phones. …Learn More

Oldest Women, Often Poor, Need a Hand

In this video, Elena Chavez Quezada introduces two working women in her family who didn’t get a fair shot at a comfortable retirement.

Her mother-in-law, a single mother and immigrant from the Dominican Republic, pieced together a living for herself, her parents, and her children. She never had a 401(k) or owned a house. Each time she built up a little savings, an emergency depleted it. Now in her 70s, she is supported by her son and Quezada.

Quezada’s aunt possessed the personality of a chief executive but worked as a housekeeper and sold snow cones and hot dogs at her husband’s stand in Albuquerque. After his death, she worked well into her 90s as a receptionist for a hair salon.

The goal for retired women like them should be “to age comfortably and with dignity,” said Quezada, a senior director for the San Francisco Foundation, which supports communities in the Bay area.

That’s very difficult for many older women to do. They have less wealth, and although their poverty rate has declined, women – many of them widows – still make up the vast majority of poor people over 80. This is rooted in part in their years as working women, when they earned less. Women are also the majority of single parents raising their families on a single paycheck.

A lack of a retirement plan is a common problem. More than half of the women employed full-time or part-time in the private sector are not saving in a retirement plan at any given time. …Learn More

Unbalanced scales

Social Security Eases Racial Disparities

Social Security is a major source of income for most retirees. It is even more important to blacks and Hispanics in a nation that is becoming increasingly diverse.

Social Security is helping to even out the racial and ethnic inequities in income and wealth that exist in the working population and continue in old age, according to a study by the Center for Retirement Research for the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.

The researchers estimate how much Social Security reduces this inequality by comparing retirement wealth for white, black, and Hispanic-Americans.

Wealth is defined broadly to include obvious things like home equity and financial assets such as 401(k) retirement accounts, certificates of deposit, and money market accounts. In addition, the researchers converted the income that workers get from Social Security and defined benefit pensions into wealth by estimating the total value today of their future benefit checks.

The estimates of wealth, when Social Security is excluded, reveal enormous disparities. The typical white worker in his early- to mid-50s can expect to have about $177,000 in non-Social Security wealth in retirement, compared with just $24,000 for blacks – about a 7 to 1 ratio. Hispanics have $35,000 – or a 5 to 1 ratio.

These ratios improve dramatically, dropping to roughly 2 to 1 when Social Security is added in. The white worker has $378,000 in total wealth, compared with $173,000 for blacks and $186,000 for Hispanics.

Social Security’s progressive benefit formula reduces retirement inequality by replacing more of the income of lower-paid workers. The program also provides nearly universal coverage, whereas many workers do not have access to retirement plans at work. These features help black and Hispanic workers, who tend to have lower incomes and are also less likely to have retirement plans.

“Social Security is the most equal form of retirement wealth and the most important source for most minority households,” the researchers conclude. …Learn More