July 21, 2020
Pandemic Puts More Retirements at Risk
Americans’ 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
July 2, 2020
Recession Destabilizes Boomers’ Finances
The COVID-19 recession has changed everything.
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.
COVID-19 and Your Finances:
Social Security Tapped More in Downturn
Lost Wealth Today vs the Great Recession
Boomers Facing Tough Financial Decisions …Learn More
June 30, 2020
COVID: The Challenge for Older Workers
In anticipation of rambunctious children returning to the classroom in the fall, older teachers are sounding alarms about how challenging it will be to make the schools safe for themselves, as well as the children and families.
Their fears about going back to work in a pandemic are shared by older workers around the country with chronic conditions, which increase the mortality rate for people who contract COVID-19.
More than half of U.S. workers who are between ages 55 and 64 are in jobs that can’t be done remotely, a new study estimates. Their flexibility to work at home isn’t much different than younger adults.
But older Americans who are weighing whether to return to work face a dilemma that is of less concern to young, healthy workers.
The older workers must choose between “health risks – returning to work before the virus is under control – or economic risks – delaying work until the environment is safe, which may exhaust their resources,” concluded researchers at the Center for Retirement Research, which sponsors this blog.
Jobs that can’t be performed at home were identified in the study by 14 specific tasks, ranging from interacting with the public and handling machinery to rarely using email and standing or walking for most of the workday.
By linking information about jobs to individuals in a national survey, the researchers reported on the ability to work remotely based on the characteristics of the workers themselves. They found that women, who often gravitate to jobs that give them more flexibility or the ability to work part-time, are more likely to be in jobs they can do at home – think about travel agents (85 percent are women) and freelance writers (67 percent).
The analysis also confirmed something the media have reported anecdotally: working remotely is a perk of being a well-paid professional. About six in 10 workers in the highest earnings bracket can do their jobs at home, compared with just over three out of 10 workers in the lowest two earnings brackets. …Learn More
June 23, 2020
Recessions Hit Depressed Workers Hard
Anyone who’s suffered through depression knows it can be difficult to get out of bed, much less find the energy to go to work. Mental illness has been on the rise, and depression and myriad other symptoms get in the way of being a productive employee.
So it’s not surprising that men and women with mental illness are much less likely to be employed than people who have no symptoms. But the problem gets worse in a recession.
In 2008, the first year of the Great Recession, the economy slowed sharply as 2.6 million workers lost their jobs. During that time, people who suffered from mental illness left the labor force at a much faster pace than everyone else, according to a new study from the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.
The researchers compared average labor force participation, as reported in the National Health Interview Survey, for three periods. Two periods of consistent economic growth bracketed a period that included the onset of the Great Recession: 1997-1999, 2006-2008, and 2015-2017.
Labor force participation for people with no mental illness dipped less than 1 percent between the late 1990s and the period that included the recession. By 2015-2017, roughly three out of four of them were still in the labor force – only slightly below pre-recession levels.
Contrast this relative stability to large declines in activity for people with mental illness – the more severe the condition, the steeper the drop. Participation fell 17 percent among people with the most severe forms of mental illness between the late 1990s and the period that included the recession. By 2015-2017, only 38 percent of them remained in the labor force – well below pre-recession levels. …Learn More
June 16, 2020
Readers Lament Decline in Boomer Health
The share of people in their late 50s with the second most severe form of obesity has tripled since the early 1990s. This grim fact, featured in a recent Squared Away article, clarifies COVID-19’s danger to older Americans.
The article, “Our Parents Were Healthier at Ages 54-60,” summarized research establishing that baby boomers are less healthy than their parents’ generation due to several conditions related to obesity, including diabetes, pain levels, and difficulty performing daily activities. The poorest Americans’ health deteriorated the fastest – and COVID-19 is preying on them.
“This decline in markers of metabolic health seems to correlate with increased vulnerability to the pandemic,” wrote one reader, Dan O’Brien, who was among several who commented on recent health-related blogs.
That’s what happened during the H1N1 flu pandemic in 2009. Hospitalizations – and possibly death rates – were tied to obesity in adults with multiple health conditions, according to the National Institutes of Health.
“The vast majority of [COVID-19 patients] who reach the ICU suffer from comorbidities. My takeaway is that metabolic dysfunction is tied to immune-system failure in ways we don’t yet understand,” O’Brien said.
Another reader, Lorraine Porto, advocated a simple way for people to keep their weight in check: walk. An elderly woman she knows “walked miles every week.” Porto believes this healthy habit saved the woman’s life when she broke her hip in her 80s and was “walking around, sprightly as ever, less than two months later.” The woman lived into her 90s, Porto said.
A second health-related blog popular with readers looked at the unexpected costs of treating medical conditions that become more common in old age.
Older workers and retirees who try to anticipate their future medical expenses might feel a bit like they’re throwing a dart at a dartboard. The researchers did the work for them in a study described in the blog, “Unexpected Retirement Costs Can be Big.” …Learn More
June 11, 2020
401ks are a Source of Cash in Pandemic
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
June 9, 2020
Disability Applications Spike in Recession
During the Great Recession, the record numbers of Americans who applied for disability included many people who lost their jobs – and it might happen again as the COVID-19 recession plays out.
A 2018 study estimated that 1 million people applied who would not have done so if there hadn’t been a recession. By October 2009, as the jobless rate was peaking, the additional applicants increased the total applications to the U.S. Social Security Administration by 16.5 percent.
The average age of these applicants was 53, and they tended to have impairments that were musculoskeletal or cognitive in nature. Because these impairments are less severe, they were more likely to be denied benefits, often resulting in an appeal.
In contrast, the people who would’ve sought disability benefits even in a strong economy tended to have serious medical conditions such as Crohn’s or chronic kidney disease that usually qualify them automatically under the disability program’s vetting system.
Ultimately, among the applicants who applied in response to the recession, 42 percent were awarded benefits, according to the study funded by the Social Security Administration and based on an analysis of the agency’s disability records.
When they did receive benefits, they were more often awarded on the basis of having a functional limitation and no transferable skills. As a result, many people who used to work were nevertheless approved for benefits, because their options for transferring their skills from their old job to a new job were limited.
Adding so many people to the disability system carried a steep price in terms of an increase in administrative and benefit costs. But the formerly productive workers also paid a price.
“Once people qualify” for disability benefits, the researchers said, “they rarely re-enter the labor force.” …Learn More