(The Hill) — More than two-fifths of baby boomers are nearing retirement with no retirement savings.
That fact may surprise you, if you are a typical white-collar worker, dwelling in a corporate culture of near-universal retirement coverage, encouraged to save a half-million dollars or more before taking the gold watch.
But many Americans work for smaller companies that don’t offer retirement savings, or are self-employed, or live paycheck to paycheck.
“You think everyone works for a Fortune 500 company, and everybody has a pension plan, but that’s not the reality,” said Craig Martin, managing director of wealth and lending intelligence at J.D. Power.
Fewer than half of working-age Americans have any retirement savings, according to Census data for 2020. Savings rates rise with age, but only to a point. In the 55- to –64-year-old boomer age group, 58 percent of Americans own retirement accounts.
And that is a problem. A newly minted retiree of 65 can now expect to live 20 more years, on average, according to Social Security projections.
Without a retirement account, most retirees count on Social Security. The average monthly Social Security check to a retired worker is around $1,800. The average household run by an over-65 American spends more than $4,000 a month.
Yet, “many people go into retirement thinking that Social Security is going to provide for them,” said Josh Hodges, chief customer officer for the National Council on Aging.
A chasm of wishful thinking separates America’s retirement goals from its retirement realities.
By one rule-of-thumb retirement calculator, workers should aim to save 10 times their annual salary by age 67: $375,000 for an individual, and $708,000 for a household, based on median incomes.
If the goal is to retire in relative comfort, Americans assume they will need something closer to $1.1 million, according to a survey by Schroders, the asset management company.
But the average retirement account held just over $100,000 at the close of 2022, according to a Fidelity analysis.
The median baby-boom household isn’t doing much better, with $134,000 in retirement savings in 2019, the most recent federal data. That’s about one-third of the average retirement savings in that age group, $408,420, a figure inflated by the super-rich.
And most retirement nest eggs are much smaller now than a year ago. By Fidelity’s estimate, the average retirement account lost one-fifth of its value in 2022, dwindling from $135,600 to $104,000.
“There were a lot of downsides in the last year,” said Courtney Alev, consumer financial advocate at Credit Karma. “It really shows why it’s really important for everyone, no matter how old you are, to have a diversified portfolio.”
Among retirees, the average savings account dwindled from $192,000 to $171,000 in 2022, according to a survey by Clever Real Estate. The share of retirees without any savings jumped from 30 percent to 37 percent.
Earlier generations of retirees counted on Social Security and employer-funded pensions to deliver a steady income.
Social Security has dwindled as an income source over the years, and pensions are in decline. More than ever, Americans who desire a “comfortable” retirement must squirrel away money in a retirement account.
Yet, nearly half of private-sector employees, 57 million Americans, have no option to save for retirement at work.
According to an AARP analysis, huge swaths of the American public lack access to employer-sponsored retirement plans: 78 percent of workers at companies with fewer than 10 employees, 76 percent of workers who lack high school diplomas and 64 percent of the nation’s Hispanic employees.
“When you get below 100 employees, the likelihood of a plan really goes down, said Craig Copeland, director of wealth benefits research at the Employee Benefit Research Institute. “That leaves those people to try to do an IRA on their own. And if they’re lower income, they’re less likely to have a relationship with a financial institution to set that up, and they’re likely living paycheck to paycheck.”
Anyone can start a retirement plan. But for lower-income Americans, it is easier said than done.
Since the 1980s, inflation-adjusted wages have stagnated for all but the wealthiest Americans.
To make ends meet, more Americans are working into their 70s. The share of people over 75 in the labor force is projected to reach 11 percent in 2026, up from 5 percent in 1996.
But even with those added wage-earning years, the poverty rate among seniors reached 10.3 percent in 2021, Census data show, the highest quotient in two decades.
“If you didn’t have Social Security, it would be well north of 40 percent,” said Richard Fiesta, executive director of the Alliance for Retired Americans.
The savings shortfall leaves many older people unprepared for the medical costs that come with old age.
More than half of Americans will eventually need long-term care. Someone who turns 65 today will incur $120,900 in future long-term care costs, on average, by one estimate.
But an analysis by the National Council on Aging found that 60 percent of older adults could not afford two years of long-term, in-home care.
“People don’t want to admit they’re going to need it,” Hodges said. “The idea that you’re going to need help going to the bathroom, help getting out of bed, that’s a concept people don’t want to deal with.”
The good news, retirement experts say, is that an older American with insufficient retirement funds still has plenty of options.
One is to keep working.
“We are seeing a growing number of people at older ages who are in the workforce because they want to be,” said David John, senior strategic policy advisor at AARP. On top of making money, older workers might “want the social connections, to get out of the house, to do something that feels worthwhile.”
Additional years of work deliver another chance to build retirement savings, rather than deplete them.
Retirees might consider postponing Social Security benefits. You can claim them at age 62, but the monthly check almost doubles if you wait until 70, according to a federal analysis. The extra money “is a better deal than you can get pretty much anywhere else,” John said.
Homeowners should consider leveraging home equity to bridge gaps in retirement savings. Home equity makes up most of the typical retired homeowner’s net worth. But many seniors balk at the reverse mortgage, a loan against home equity that yields tax-free income. The loan ends when the borrower dies, moves out or sells the property.
The reverse mortgage has a mixed reputation, but “there are good, reputable companies that can provide you a respectable amount of income,” Copeland said.
As a long-term policy fix, many retiree advocates point to a growing list of states that offer universal retirement savings.
More than a dozen states have adopted retirement-savings plans for workers at companies that don’t offer them. Many other states are considering “auto-IRA” programs. The ultimate goal, advocates say, is to reach all of the 57 million Americans who can’t save for retirement at work.