Are working baby boomers headed for a train wreck?

Some of the stories here on BoomerCafé are fun and breezy. But this piece is serious, a serious warning for baby boomers from a new survey on expectations about retirement. It is written by Richard Eisenberg, who is a personal finance editor at Money, Yahoo, Good Housekeeping, and CBS MoneyWatch, the author of How to Avoid a Mid-life Financial Crisis, and, as it happens, the Money and Work Editor for our friends at the PBS website NextAvenue.org.

Uh-oh.

American workers aged 50 or older think there’s nearly a 1 in 2 chance they’ll still be working at 70 (see chart below), but many employees who expect to work longer are exactly the ones who’ll likely be least able to do so.

That’s the upshot of the new, frightening (for employees and employers) 2015/2016 Global Benefits Attitudes Survey by Willis Towers Watson, a global benefits advisory consultant. The firm surveyed 5,083 U.S. employees at large companies, as well as roughly 25,000 employees in 18 other countries.

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The workers expecting to keep plugging away until 70, the study discovered, are often “the most vulnerable” and “showing higher levels of stress, lower levels of health and lower levels of engagement with their current jobs,” says Shane Bartling, senior consultant at Willis Towers Watson.

“That’s an uncomfortable fact for employees facing a very difficult situation and it sends a warning sign to employers about what’s transpiring in the new retirement system in the United States that we’ve put in place,” Bartling adds.

According to the survey, of those planning to retire after 70:

  • Only 47 percent say they are in very good health
  • 40 percent feel they are stuck in their jobs (compared with 27 percent who plan to retire before 65)
  • 40 percent have high or above average stress (compared to 30 percent of those expecting to retire at 65)
  • 48 percent of workers earning below $35,000 expect to work to 70 or later (vs. 20 percent of those making $75,000 or more)

And if these vulnerable workers find themselves out of work, but wanting to be employed, the psychological effects — not to mention the financial ones — could be devastating.

As New School economist Teresa Ghilarducci just wrote, according to the government’s Health and Retirement Study of older Americans, “unemployed respondents were more likely than both workers and retirees to report a general feeling of helplessness. Among 55- to 64-year-olds, 40 percent of the unemployed agreed with the statement, ‘I often feel helpless in dealing with the problems of life.’” By contrast, only 8 percent of retirees and 16 percent of older workers felt that way.

Bartling worries (as do I) that many of the older, vulnerable workers have meager retirement savings and “don’t have options.” The question, says Bartling, “is how are they going to be able to continue working?”

Richard Eisenberg, managing editor and senior web editor, NextAvenue.org.

Richard Eisenberg, managing editor and senior web editor, NextAvenue.org.

And how will this play out for them? “These employees may be confronted with very painful decisions around having to adjust their lifestyle expectations in retirement and fall back on family and the social safety net in a bigger way than they had hoped,” says Bartling.

I’d like to see more employers taking more action to prevent this coming train wreck. It’s true that growing numbers of firms — especially large ones— are offering financial wellness and physical wellness programs, which is reason for some optimism.

Last year, a survey of 250 employers by the Aon Hewitt benefits consulting firm, said 93 percent of those firms planned to focus more on financial wellness for employees in ways extending beyond retirement decisions. Aon Hewitt’s Director of Retirement Research, Rob Austin, called financial wellness ‘sort of The Next Big Trend’ in benefits. Says Bartling: “We’re certainly seeing an increase in the attractiveness of financial planning support.”

Exactly how much good financial wellness programs do, however, is an open question, since the programs vary dramatically in how they work and who participates in them. “Many of those programs struggle to fully engage employees and get desirable outcomes,” says Bartling. “Now, the emphasis is on how to amplify those interventions, akin to financial biometrics.”

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The success of physical wellness programs at work has been a mixed bag, too. Although 81 percent of larger companies now offer physical wellness programs, according to a 2015 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, health writer Sharon Begley recently wrote on the excellent Stat website that “there is a startling lack of rigorous evidence that they achieve their stated goals.”

But Bartling says: “It’s incumbent for all employers to understand how extensive [financial stress] is in the workforce. That’s only just beginning to happen.”

I asked Bartling whether he thinks many workers really will need to hold down jobs until after 70, as one in four expect. “We’ve done retirement readiness analysis for nearly 100 employers in the United States and the statistics based on that are not dissimilar from the results in the employees survey,” he says.

However, Bartling adds, there’s a “wide distribution of retirement readiness within the workforce.” And no, it’s not that wealthier workers are necessarily better prepared financially than lower-income ones.

“Many employees at both ends are well-prepared and underprepared,” says Bartling. “There are many situations where higher-paid employees actually have a higher level of a lack of preparedness,” due to living beyond their means.

One other notable finding in the new Willis Towers Watson survey: The percentage of Americans who expect to retire after age 65 has fallen from 52 percent in 2013 to 46 percent now. That, Bartling says, is likely a reflection of the improving economy.
But the next recession will come sometime, so that falling percentage is likely to head right back up again when times get tougher.

Follow Richard on Twitter — @richeis315

© Twin Cities Public Television – 2016. All rights reserved.

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5 Comments on "Are working baby boomers headed for a train wreck?"

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Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt
Guest

Add to that the fact that it is 5 times more likely to become disabled than to die before retirement age, and you have a subject which doesn’t get covered enough: will whatever disability coverage you have allow you to live as you did before, and does it also put money toward retirement?

Disabled people can’t work, even if they need to, and will have higher medical costs, even with Medicare. Only a few of us find things we can do (I’m a novelist now), and the potential for earning isn’t very large.

Carole Sullivan
Guest

Those who plan vs. those who don’t. Hopefully the blueprint for social security and retirement will change.

Darrell Elmer Rodgers
Guest

Boy this hits close to home. Finding a new job after a lay-off at 61 years old proved to be a year-long process that wiped out a bunch of my savings and required a relocation (moving is a big stresser too). My only hope is to remain light-hearted about the OTHER prospect: Die Workin’ – Here’s a song I wrote:
https://darrellelmerrodgers.bandcamp.com/track/die-workin-2

Mary Anne Hahn
Guest

Today’s employers won’t be our saving grace. Using our skills, talents, etc. to create our own businesses is the best way for us to support ourselves, our loved ones and our causes in the years to come.

Laurie Galteland
Guest

Highlights Financial Literacy, the Need to Have Income vs. The Desire to Make a Meaningul Contribution. This disconnect can happen to much younger unemployed as well.

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