The unemployment rate has rocketed to double digits. But older workers’ struggles in the job market are not new.
An Urban Institute study, reported here, estimated that about half of workers over age 50 left a job involuntarily at some point between 1992 and 2016 – a period that included strong economic growth and two recessions. After the workers found new employment, their households were earning just over half of what they earned in their previous jobs, researcher Richard Johnson told PBS’ NewsHour.
The baby boomers being laid off now might relate to Jaye Crist, who was featured in this NewsHour video last February when unemployment was still at record lows. He had been a manager at a national printing company for three decades – until his 2016 layoff. Through sheer determination, he found a full-time job packing and delivering printed materials to customers for a print shop in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. But his income dropped sharply.
“It’s frustrating that, in my mind, somebody who has done the things you were told as a kid you need to do – stay at a job, work, learn, be helpful, get promotions – and then you find yourself, at this point, that your career doesn’t mean [anything],” Crist said in the pre-pandemic video.
“You just do whatever you have to do to keep everything else afloat,” he said.
With the country now in a recession, I checked in with Crist to see how he’s doing. His financial situation deteriorated further after Pennsylvania shut down the economy to contain the virus. He briefly lost his three jobs – at the printing company and two part-time jobs, at a local brewery and a workout gym.
He was relieved when the printer brought him back in April from a three-week furlough after the company received a stimulus loan under the federal Paycheck Protection Program. But business is slow, and Crist worries he might lose the job again. “Knowing that you’re almost 60 years old,” he asked, “now what do you do?”
The gym is also reopening, but it’s unclear how much he can work since he used to be on the night shift and the gym will no longer be open 24 hours a day. He also returned to the brewery to handle takeout orders but it, like many eating establishments, is struggling to make it at a time of social distancing.
Prior to the pandemic, Crist had already gone through many of the financial strugglesboomers are facing today. With his wife unable to work, he said he depleted his 401(k) after his 2016 layoff. He was having difficulty keeping up his mortgage payments and paying part of his daughter’s college loans, and now it’s even harder.
He said he can’t imagine being able to retire. “I’ll be working and paying for stuff until I can’t.”Learn More
This extreme disruption in our lives is always top of mind, which was reflected in our most widely read articles so far this year, based on the blog’s traffic.
Baby boomers, their retirement plans having been deeply affected by the Great Recession, are once again reassessing their finances. One popular article explained that the boomers who were in their early to late 50s during the previous recession lost about 3 percent of their total wealth at the time. This put their retirement planning at a distinct disadvantage compared with earlier generations in their 50s, whose wealth, rather than shrinking, grew 3 percent to 8 percent. The current recession is the second major setback in just over a decade.
Prior to the pandemic, readers liked articles about making careful retirement plans. Post-pandemic, the most popular article was about laid-off boomers desperate for income who may have to start their Social Security prematurely. The retirement benefits can be claimed as early as age 62, but doing so locks in the smallest possible monthly Social Security check – for life.
Even before Millennials were hit by the recession, they were already farther behind older generational groups when they were the same age. One article explained that the typical Millennial had just $12,000 in wealth. They are “the only generation to have fallen further behind” during the pre-pandemic recovery, the Federal Reserve said.
Here are a dozen of this blog’s most popular articles for the first half of 2020. They are grouped into three topics: COVID-19 and Your Finances, Retirement Planning, and Retirement Uncertainties.
The U.S. retirement savings system has always been a little leaky. But the leaks seem to be getting bigger.
Some Americans are eyeing withdrawals from their 401(k) plans as the best of a few bad options for paying their rent or solving other cash-flow problems.
As of May 8, 1.5 percent of retirement plan participants had taken some money out of their 401(k) plans under new federal legislation permitting penalty-free withdrawals, The Wall Street Journal reported. An April survey by the non-profit Transamerica Institute put the number of savers responding to the pandemic much higher – about one in five.
But the data included people who took out loans from their 401(k)s, in addition to withdrawals from 401(k)s and IRAs. Further, Transamerica reported not only on what people have already done but what they say they plan to do. Younger workers and men were the most likely to resort to this desperation move.
Prior to the pandemic, many workers were already behind on their retirement savings and still had not fully recovered from the recession a decade ago.
The current economic downturn will only set them back further as the layoffs, reduced hours and sales commissions derail or curtail their efforts to save. Employers having to lay off workers are also conserving cash by suspending their matching contributions to their employees’ 401(k)s.
“The negative economic effects of the pandemic are further threatening retirement savings and security,” said Catherine Collinson, chief executive of the Transamerica Institute, a partner of the Center for Retirement Research, which funds this blog.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act passed in March made it easier to withdraw money by waiving the standard 20 percent income tax withholding and 10 percent penalty, which usually applies to people under age 59½. But one estimate made prior to the pandemic shows this is a costly strategy: prematurely taking money out of 401(k)s and IRAs reduces the average amount of money available for retirement by about one-fourth.
People who still have jobs are also saving less. One in five workers have reduced their 401(k) contributions, a Magnify Money survey shows. The informal poll isn’t representative of the population but is certainly an indication of the financial strain the pandemic is putting on workers.
Employers are pulling back too. At last count, some four dozen companies reeling from a drop in revenue – including big names like AutoNation, Best Buy, Hilton Grand Vacations, and Tripadvisor – are temporarily halting their matching contributions, according to a list compiled by the Center for Retirement Research. …Learn More
It’s smart to invest retirement savings in mutual funds that charge very low fees for one simple reason: the worker keeps more of his money and hands over less to Wall Street.
But in a study of people in their 50s and 60s who have retired or otherwise left federal employment, the people with the most education and the best scores on a standardized test were more likely to make what seems to be the wrong decision. Rather than keep their retirement funds in the government’s Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), which has extremely low fees, they transferred the money to much higher-fee IRAs operated by financial companies.
The $500 billion TSP – the world’s largest defined contribution retirement plan – is inexpensive in large part because it invests only in index mutual funds, which automatically track a variety of stock and bond market indexes and avoid the need to pay money managers to pick the investments. The annual fees for TSP’s index funds – known as expense ratios – are under 0.04 percent of the investor’s assets.
But over a 10-year period, about one fourth of the former federal employees rolled over the money saved during their careers into IRAs that typically had much higher expense ratios: 0.57 percent. On top of that, IRAs often charge additional fees for investment advice, pushing the potential total annual fees to well in excess of 1.5 percent. It’s possible that investing in an IRA could generate enough returns to make the extra fees worthwhile, but research has shown this is not the norm.
What explains the rollover decision? More educated people tend to have larger retirement account balances, raising the possibility that they were either seeking out financial advice or were targeted by advisors’ sales pitches. However, even among people with similar balances, those with more education were still more likely to roll over to IRAs.
It’s possible that they “perceive that they know what they’re doing” and want to take control of their investments “even when higher fees result,” the researchers said. …Learn More
Retirees could get substantially more in their Social Security check if they would just wait longer – up to age 70 – to sign up.
But only a tiny fraction of workers make it to 70, and more than a third get the minimum monthly benefits because they start them as soon as the program allows, at 62. A Bocconi University professor and three UCLA professors have set about trying to change minds by testing 13 ways of encouraging older workers to hold off and lock in a larger Social Security check.
The techniques, which they tried on various groups of workers between ages 40 and 61, ranged widely in approach. But two of the most successful tests had one thing in common: participants were asked to engage in a little reflection about the personal impact of choosing when to start receiving their Social Security. This approach departed from the more common strategy of trying to influence people by feeding them financial or other information.
Everyone began the same way: they saw a table showing how much more they would receive from Social Security for each year after 62 that they delayed. One of the most effective tests was an exercise in self-reflection. The participants were asked to list “their own reasons” for how delaying would help them personally. Only after this step did they list the reasons to start their benefits at a younger age.
The order of these requests was intentional and intended to counteract the tendency by most people to focus on their short-term desires. This group reported that they intended to sign up 10 months later than the control group, which wasn’t exposed to the test, according to the study conducted for the Retirement Research Consortium. …Learn More
For most retirees, figuring out how much money to withdraw from savings every year is a difficult-to-impossible math problem. But the issue goes much deeper: fears about what the future might bring make this decision overwhelming.
Extreme caution is a popular solution. A 2009 study estimated that by the time middle-income retirees are in their 80s, they still had not touched about three-fourths of their savings, and 2016 research found that retirees with substantial assets are the most reluctant spenders. Vanguard recently reported that retirees with very modest savings turn around and reinvest a third of the money they’re required to withdraw under IRS rules after age 70½.
People saved all of their lives to make sure they will enjoy retirement. So why are they so reluctant to spend the money for the purpose it was intended?
A 2018 study in the Journal of Personal Finance surveyed retirees to get a sense of the psychology behind their caution.
Half of the survey respondents agreed with this statement: “The thought of my retirement portfolio balance going down over time brings me discomfort, even if the decline in value is a result of me spending money on my retirement goals.”
And the people who agreed with this statement said they feel like they are not well prepared financially to retire – and this had nothing to do with how prepared they actually are. …Learn More
A person’s finances are not determined simply by obvious factors like how much they earn – personality can also make a difference.
A new study has identified three personality traits that play a role in how individuals handle their nest eggs. For example, conscientious people – self-disciplined planners – are more careful and have more wealth at the end of their lives.
The University of Illinois researchers looked at two types of wealth: within employer retirement plans and outside of these plans. They did not find a connection between the wealth levels in employer plans and various personality traits, a result they anticipated because retirement wealth has more to do with a retiree’s work history and earnings.
But they did find a connection between personality and the wealth individuals hold outside of their retirement plans. Even though the majority of retirees have very little of this wealth, it’s still interesting to see the connections.
For example, retirees who are open to new experiences – they are imaginative, proactive, and broad-minded – behave like conscientious people and preserve their wealth, especially after their mid-60s, according to the study, which was conducted for NBER’s Retirement and Disability Research Center.
Agreeableness works in the opposite direction. Agreeable people are known for being soft-hearted, friendly and helpful – they also tend to care less about money or about managing it. Not surprisingly, they have less wealth. …Learn More
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