Why retirement is out of reach for many working Americans

Theresa Edwards thought these would be her golden years. Instead, she gets up at dawn to crisscross Los Angeles by bus to work as a caregiver. Waiting at home at the end of a long day is her last patient: Edwards’ husband of 55 years, who is recovering from a serious car accident.

Edwards started caring for others at the age of 18 when her grandmother had Alzheimer’s disease. At 74, she tires more easily. Sometimes she has to stop and catch her breath. But taking a break isn’t an option

Every dollar counts. Edwards doesn’t buy new clothes or get her nails done. She has no credit cards and deposits every cent she doesn’t spend on bills in a savings account. 

Still, she barely clears enough each month to cover groceries, utilities and the $1,500 rent on her two-bedroom apartment where her four grandchildren and 9-year-old German shepherd, Duchess, also live. 

“I bless Jesus and God for me to be as strong as I am at this age,” she said. “Sometimes I wish I could stop working. But the way life is going, I’m not sure I can.”

Retirement is increasingly becoming a luxury many American workers cannot afford. With rising housing costs and medical expenses and without the pensions that buoyed previous generations, millions of older Americans can’t stop working.

Social Security – which pays less than half of average wages and faces possible benefits cuts – doesn’t stretch far enough and many older Americans have too little stowed away in savings or 401(k) accounts to get by. 

In fact, only about half of American households have retirement accounts, according to the federal Survey of Consumer Finances.

Many older Americans can’t stop working at retirement age

For decades, the combination of pensions − defined benefit plans − and Social Security made a dignified retirement possible for many.

Not today. Research from labor economist and professor at The New School for Social Research Teresa Ghilarducci shows just 10% of Americans between the ages of 62 and 70 who are retired are financially stable. 

Most older Americans either are retired and live below the standard of living they had when they were working or they can’t afford to stop working, according to data Ghilarducci analyzed from the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Survey. 

“One in 2 people reaching retirement won’t have enough and 1 in 4 seniors are in poverty measured by international standards,” Ghilarducci said.

“The retirement savings crisis in the United States is no longer looming: it is here now,” reads the first sentence in a recent report from the National Institute on Retirement Security.

“We’re far from where we need to be,” said Dan Doonan, executive director of the National Institute on Retirement Security and one of the report’s authors. 

‘I never imagined I would be in this situation’ 

Older Americans like Robin Delucia face a frightening and once-unthinkable prospect: They will be poor for the first time in their lives.

Delucia, who has been working since she was 14, retired on her 70th birthday. But she says she couldn’t stay retired. 

After taking a two-month, car-camping trip to New York with her 10-year-old dog, Midnight, she returned home to Sarasota, Florida, to look for work. 

“It’s the only way I can afford to keep living,” she said. “To live on Social Security alone nowadays is an absolute joke, especially in Florida.”  

For much of her life, Delucia lived comfortably. She worked as a real estate agent, loan officer and mortgage processor before owning her own marketing business. Then her deteriorating health made it impossible to work full time. Over the last 20 years, she has had 15 surgeries.

For a time, Delucia got by on credit cards until she couldn’t keep up with the payments and had to file for bankruptcy. She owes $18,000 on a car that appraises for a quarter of that.

She used to be a homeowner. Now she lives temporarily in a “she-shed” behind her daughter’s home.

Delucia wants to start a Facebook page for people 62 and older and a nonprofit that serves as a housing connection, matching older Americans who need help paying rent or the mortgage with those who need a place to live. 

“I never imagined I would be in this situation,” she said. 

‘Work, retire, repeat’

Ghilarducci, author of  “Work, Retire, Repeat: The Uncertainty of Retirement in the New Economy,” blames the retirement savings crisis on the switch to 401(k)s

These “do-it-yourself pensions” have marooned a growing number of low- and middle-income Americans, forcing them to work long into their 70s, she said. 

Some influential people are starting to agree with her. 

Larry Fink, chairman and CEO of BlackRock, one of the world’s largest asset-management companies, has warned the “you’re on your own” approach has shifted Americans from “financial certainty to financial uncertainty.” 

He points out that 4 in 10 Americans don’t have $400 in emergency savings to cover a car repair or a trip to the emergency room, let alone retirement savings.

“Maybe once a decade, the U.S. faces a problem so big and urgent that government and corporate leaders stop business as usual,” he wrote in March. “America needs an organized, high-level effort to ensure that future generations can live out their final years with dignity.” 

Retirement crisis will get worse for millennials, Gen Z

Without an intervention, the retirement savings crisis will only worsen as more Americans reach retirement age, said Kevin Prindiville, executive director of the nonprofit Justice in Aging.

“If we don’t take action, future generations will face an even more challenging retirement landscape,” Prindiville said.

Younger people are already rattled, particularly those with unstable employment and unsteady incomes. 

Angel Herion, 23, said she was eager to start putting away for retirement

A self-described go-getter, Herion started working when she was a teenager. After graduating high school, she dreamed of a career in medicine and got a certified nursing assistant license. But when her elderly adoptive mother fell ill, Herion became her caregiver. 

When her mom – her only family – died after a lengthy illness, Herion was suddenly alone. Her nursing license had expired and she had no savings, so she worked her way up in fast food and retail.

She was thrilled to land a job as an assistant manager at Macy’s on Long Island in 2022. She loved her team and her customers. It was also the first job that offered a 401(k).

Then she got sick. At 22, Herion was diagnosed with a debilitating and painful autoimmune disorder that makes getting up and moving around difficult.

Today, she lives on public assistance and hunting for work-from-home positions. What money she has she spends on medication. Saving for retirement is a dream she has had to defer indefinitely.

“I wish there were more retirement options out there,” she said. “A lot of the time, you can’t even afford to pay into retirement because you’re just barely getting by.”

3 simple tips to save for retirement

  • Save early and consistently: Put away 5% of your take-home pay in your 20s and 30s and 10% for the rest of your working life. “If you do that and don’t touch it, you can supplement Social Security and keep your standard of living,” Ghilarducci said. “The earlier you do, because of the power of compound interest, the better.” 
  • Invest wisely: Be a savvy investor, she said. Don’t get stock tips from friends and family or hire a pricey fund manager. Maintain a balanced portfolio in a retirement savings account with a company like Vanguard.
  • Pay attention: “We forget how important the federal government is in terms of our financial future. For most people, the bottom 90% of people, the federal government is the most important financial actor,” Ghilarducci said. “So you really have to pay attention to politicians’ stance on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.”

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