Millions of baby boomers are getting caught in the country's broken retirement system
They went to work every day and built a life for themselves, put money away in a savings plan and paid their taxes. And then they got divorced or hurt on the job or sick or widowed or just plain unlucky -- and found themselves in the same boat as millions of Americans who are now approaching retirement with most of the financial props knocked out from under them.
As the big bulge of baby boomers head into old age, as many as half are coming face-to-face with a new American economic reality: Retirement means a descent into relative hard times, because the systems put in place when this generation was just entering its peak earning years have failed.
And one way or another the whole country will feel the consequences.
We talked to several Americans who have come to the end of their work lives with no financial cushion, no nest egg. The oldest is 74, the youngest 57: just about the exact span of the baby-boom generation. They are liberal and conservative, rural and urban, blue collar and white.
The coronavirus pandemic has scrambled the lives of these six boomers just as it has everyone else's, though with no savings to worry about at least it hasn't directly hurt them financially. Some have hunkered down, as best they can in sometimes tight spaces. For others, the pandemic has brought a surprising twist to their lives.
For others of their generation who have lost their jobs in the coronavirus shutdown, the odds against regaining employment, and being able to keep saving, have grown longer and longer.
None of these stories is an outlier. Half of American families in the 56-to-61 age bracket had less than $21,000 in retirement savings in 2016, according to a longitudinal study by the Economic Policy Institute that used the most recent available figures. A less formal survey last year found that little had changed. Forty percent of Americans over the age of 60 who are no longer working full-time rely solely on Social Security for their income -- the median annual benefit is about $17,000.
Every day, 10,000 Americans reach the age of 65. (In 2024, that number will crest at about 12,000 a day.) And every year, fewer and fewer of them have traditional employer-sponsored pensions to support them. The system that was supposed to provide for them is shot through with holes.
"We've probably peaked in terms of retirement security -- and it's not great," said Monique Morrisey, of the Economic Policy Institute. "And now it's all downhill. Unless something changes, we're going to start seeing much more hardship."
Thirty million Americans have applied for unemployment benefits since the pandemic struck. But for laid-off workers in their 50s and 60s -- and 70s -- finding employment again will be tough.
"How many older workers are going to permanently lose their jobs and retire earlier than they planned?" Morrisey asked. The ranks of those drawing down what savings they now have are certain to grow.
The impact will reach far beyond the more than 70 million living members of the baby-boom generation. It will affect everything from employment patterns to the price of real estate. With life spans lengthening, in concert with medical bills, financially strapped baby boomers entering the years of serious physical decline will put an immense burden down the road on Medicaid and on their families.
"Their children are looking around and wondering what this means for them," said Jan Mutchler, at University of Massachusetts at Boston.
"It will be felt down the family chain," said Alicia Munnell, a professor of management sciences at Boston College. "People are going to be anxious. There's going to be some intergenerational ripple."
By some comparisons, Nancy Koch, a 70-year-old retired psychiatric nurse, counts herself lucky. She had some good jobs over the years. She's married -- for the third time, after two divorces, each of which involved lawyers, the need to set up new households, and a general drain on savings. Her husband, Terry Koch, 69, was a technical writer who worked most recently for a company that makes labels, though his real love is the piano. He's the improviser; she's the organizer. She has recovered better than expected from a health scare a decade ago, when back surgery led to unexpected complications. They have an apartment in West Allis, Wis., in a senior living complex that is subsidized through the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit. What they don't have is any money.
"We were completely not prepared," she said, for the life they are now living.
A sizable minority of Americans have struggled all their lives with low incomes. But now, millions more who were solidly middle class -- like the Kochs -- are looking at a financial fall. Half of Americans are at risk of not being able to maintain their standard of living in retirement, according to a Boston College study that was completed before the pandemic hit and potentially made the prospects even worse.
Dozens of factors have contributed to this, most having to do with lack of access to retirement savings plans, unexpected large financial hits, layoffs and declines in health. A study at Stanford University found the baby boomers have, in real terms, about 20% less in savings, 20% lower household wealth and 100% more debt than the generation born during World War II.
Terry and Nancy Koch (pronounced "Cook") are part of that 40% of retired Americans who have Social Security as their only income. Between them, it comes to about $2,500 a month. Rent for their subsidized two-bedroom apartment, across the street from an abandoned bowling alley, is $975, plus a $20 pet fee for their cat Sam. The rent is about to go up by $30. Premiums for Medicare and supplemental insurance policies cost about $450 a month for the two of them. Beyond Social Security, their retirement savings plans are -- totally tapped out. They have no cushion, no nest egg.
Although they are above the official poverty line, their monthly income falls $750 short of the amount that "constitutes adequacy as opposed to destitution" for Milwaukee county, said Mutchler, whose team at the Center for Social and Demographic Research on Aging has calculated an "Elder Index" for every county in the nation.
West Allis, just outside Milwaukee, was once the headquarters of the Allis-Chalmers Co., which manufactured industrial machinery, employed 31,000 unionized workers in Wisconsin and elsewhere, supported a solid standard of living for its workers for nearly eight decades, and paid them pensions when they retired. That's gone.
The Kochs moved there from the leafy suburb of Bay View because of the affordable rent. They have no friends there. Nancy's adult son lives alone north of Milwaukee.
In Terry Koch's view, part of the reason they have no money is rooted in the changes that have swept the country, starting with the culture of their own generation, a legacy of the 1960s.
"It was perhaps the first generation to start thinking that we didn't want to just get jobs to plug in to get our pensions and to, you know, to be a--holes when we were 70 and beat up our kids and then retire and go to Hawaii or something," he said. "We were a people who said we kind of like to have job satisfaction up front. And so we didn't think about the long run of things. To not be thinking about the future, to be more of a Zen thing, you know we live [for] today. And it wasn't pure hedonism. There was some purity. And we're still very much that way. I would rather be happy today than miserable 25 years from now. And so I made choices based on that rather than on the economics, which, you know, one could argue fairly successfully that I made some pretty stupid decisions."
His wife Nancy said, laughing, "Yeah, we were so stupid."
Music is what makes him happy, Terry Koch said. "It's a heck of a lot more important than making good labels for potato chip bags for 40 years."
The Kochs met when they both worked at a bank -- one of those small local banks that formerly kept the economy going in cities and towns across America. She was the daughter of a Motorola vice president -- "money driven," is how she described him, a man who'd fight with her mother and then buy her a new car, or fur coat. Nancy was a mother and already on her first divorce by the time she was 20. Terry moved around a lot as a boy; he didn't know his father. Nancy said he was a "juvenile delinquent," then burst out laughing. "Yeah, I was a long-haired creep," he countered, deadpan.
Nancy Koch's second husband was a law student. They couldn't save any money while he was paying tuition. As soon as he graduated he split.
In 1983, Nancy and Terry married. By the end of that decade the bank had gone south, so both these 40-something college dropouts decided to go back and get their degrees. Student loans made it possible. Nancy studied nursing. Terry studied English and history but soon drifted into computer work.
After college he got a job at Blue Cross, she landed an entry-level position at a Milwaukee hospital. She was 47. Three years later, he got a well-paying position as a writer for a defense subcontractor in Providence, R.I. For the next seven years, Nancy worked as a nurse at a series of community health centers around Rhode Island. She loved the work, unconditionally. The pay wasn't bad -- about $50,000 -- but the benefits were scanty. Terry wasn't so happy: The Pentagon contract was canceled, and then the bursting of the tech bubble made it impossible to find similar full-time work.
"All my contacts were saying, you know, just ride it out, just ride it out, just ride it out. And eventually I stopped riding," Terry Koch said. "And then all the people that I had as contacts lost their jobs."
He took one temporary job after another. By 2007, Nancy Koch had wrecked her back: nursing is a physical profession. They felt they couldn't afford to stay in New England, so they moved back to Wisconsin, where Nancy had a series of operations on her hip, back and neck.
Terry and Nancy Koch once had a retirement account, though today they can't agree as to whether it had $10,000 or $20,000 in it. No matter; they cashed it in, paying taxes and the early-withdrawal penalty, and now it's about gone.
He found a temp job in customer service for a company that made labels. Five years later he was still working there, still a temp.
"We never saved a lot of money," Nancy Koch said, "because there wasn't any to save."
Terry Koch had an operation for kidney stones and was handed a bill for $50,000, he said. "Are you kidding me? I told them I wasn't going to pay them," he said. "You know, good luck trying to collect it from me." Eventually, he said, the hospital gave up.
He managed to get his student loans suspended; Nancy Koch's were forgiven, because she went into nursing, but she had to count the outstanding balance as income, and pay taxes on it.
As early as he could -- when he turned 62 in 2012 -- Terry Koch began taking Social Security. There's a cost to that: his benefit is just under $1,000 a month. "His monthly check is, like, nonexistent," Nancy said sarcastically. "It doesn't pay for anything."
If he could have waited he'd be getting considerably more, because the benefit increases 6.75% for every year that it is deferred, up to age 70. Most Americans do not wait that long. The average Social Security benefit is about $1,461 a month.
Nancy Koch has tried to go back to work. "I'm looking, but nobody wants a 70-year-old," she said. "I've applied for a zillion jobs. It's completely impersonal." Last year she had a temporary, part-time job at the local public television station arranging its annual auction, and when it ended she was able to collect some unemployment insurance, but that's over now.
More and more people in their 60s are, like Nancy, staying at work or trying to return to the workforce. Economists argue over the impact this has on younger workers -- whether it suppresses wages for all, or blocks chances for advancement, or strengthens the economy. But only about one-quarter of employed Americans work continuously through their 50s and their early 60s in jobs with benefits, according to a study by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.
"It was surprising bad news," said Munnell, who conducted the study. Many older workers are being pushed out of old jobs, with benefits, and taking whatever they can find. Or were before the coronavirus hit.
In 2019, the number of employed Americans over the age of 65 grew by more than 700,000, to 10.6 million. That accounted for 36% of the country's job growth.
But COVID-19 could halt that trend. "If older workers can't work in high-contact areas," said Teresa Ghilarducci, who studies aging and employment issues at the New School University in New York, "employers will have to make accommodations for them." That's an expense. They'll have to accept worse working conditions or lower pay -- or see those jobs go to younger people, she said.
"We're going to see a lot of disruption -- political and economic," she said. "There is nothing that will slow down the desperation of older workers."
People in their 50s and 60s have come to be seen as more vulnerable because of the disease, Munnell said, and those who have lost their jobs this spring will be less attractive to potential employers. "It has just made the prospects more dismal," she said. "I think they're going to have a harder time reentering."
With COVID-19, the Kochs' lives have contracted even further. Terry has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, so he has barely left the apartment. They watched incredulously as protesters demonstrated against Wisconsin's shutdown orders.
Yet they are remarkably good-humored about their predicament. They are, after all, children of the post-war generation, raised in an era of growing prosperity and ever-higher expectations. And some of the irreverence that marked the 1960s refuses to be stamped out.
"You know, frankly, neither of us thought we'd be alive at this age," said Nancy Koch, her face lighting up in delight.
Actuaries have a term for that: longevity risk. In other words, there's a risk that you'll live too long.
That's what befell Gregory Bates -- and he's only 61.
Bates went to work for the local utility company in Milwaukee -- now called WE Energies -- when he was 18, as a file clerk, and, after four years in the Air Force, eventually worked his way up to budget analyst. He was the only black man in his office, and he never felt comfortable there. He had to take a medical leave when he developed stomach cancer. After he recovered and returned to work, he came down with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. He figured he didn't have long to live and was fed up anyway with life in "corporate America." So at the age of 52, he retired.
He sold his house and cashed in his 401(k), which had about $100,000 in it. The company that handled it for him neglected to withhold the early-withdrawal penalty, and by the time the IRS caught up with him several years later, he owed $46,000 in back taxes, interest and penalties.
By that time the money had all been spent. He bought a new car, gave some money to family members who needed it and, yes, went on a cruise because he thought he'd soon die.
"I went through a lot of money very quickly," he said.
Bates, who is single and has moved in with his elderly mother, went back to college after he recovered his health for a second time, with the help of a student loan. He got a master's degree and then worked for two years as a special-education teacher in the Milwaukee public schools, making about $40,000 a year. In October he had to go on leave because of a herniated disc in his back, but even as the pandemic was building this spring he was able to take a part-time job, paying $12 an hour, as a personal care provider with the nonprofit Volunteers of America. He still owes about $30,000 on the student loans.
He's regretful and optimistic at the same time.
At first, he said, "I just took menial jobs because I didn't feel like I could do those other jobs. I didn't feel like I was qualified, or they were meant for me. So I think around 45, I found out that if I set my mind to it, I could do anything I want to do."
He is determined to get a Ph.D. before he dies.
"But I wish I had been more prepared for retirement," he said. "When you're not prepared for it, when you're young, you feel like you're never going to be sick. You're never going to be on disability. It's a lack of preparation, education. You're never invincible. You never know. So just be prepared."
At one time, especially in a manufacturing state like Wisconsin, millions of retirees could count on pensions from their employers, to be added to Social Security benefits and personal savings. But pensions have been dwindling for 40 years, long since surpassed by individual retirement accounts. Such accounts are voluntary, which is a problem, and not accessible to everyone, which is a bigger problem.
Just 40% of working Americans aged 55-64 participate in a job-related retirement plan, according to a Stanford University study. Since the pandemic struck, as many as half of those workplaces have at least temporarily stopped making employer contributions -- including Amtrak, Marriott and major universities, Ghilarducci said. She expects to see more and more people tapping into their 401(k)s early, putting themselves on the path to downward mobility in retirement.
The National Institute on Retirement Security argues that retirement accounts in the best of times are half as "efficient" as pensions. The strength of a pension system is that pensions stop when the recipient dies. Thus those who die earlier help indirectly subsidize those who live longer.
With 401(k)s and other individual savings accounts, which collectively are more expensive to manage than a pension plan, each worker has to provide for an unknowable number of years in retirement.
"Systems that depend on people making hundreds of decisions and getting them all right -- they're not going to succeed," said Dan Doonan, head of the institute.
Julie Wegener is a 74-year-old retired physician and former college music director. She and her 84-year-old husband have a one-bedroom apartment in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. She calls herself a social justice activist, a dedicated campaigner for single-payer health insurance.
Her first husband was an artist, and when he died of cancer he left no money behind. For years, she had a practice in Piermont, N.Y., where, she said, she was the go-to doctor for Medicaid patients. The payments she collected from Medicaid were so low that she never made much money: In New York in those years, before the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid fees were less than 60% of Medicare fees.
Eventually she gave up and followed her first love -- music -- and got a part-time job directing the music program at Dutchess Community College. She made about $40,000 a year. She and her current husband, a retired arborist, lived in New Paltz, N.Y. In 2013, they sold their house and bought the apartment in Manhattan, where they can live without owning a car. She retired the next year.
They pay $1,000 a month in condo fees and about the same amount for medical insurance and co-pays. "It's a crazy amount of money," she said, and it eats up a large part of their Social Security, even though she waited until she was 70 to begin taking hers. They never eat out, never go to a movie, never take a cab.
In retirement she has been giving private piano lessons, to students who range in age from 8 to 88, and she made about $32,000 last year.
"I really have to work for the rest of my life," Wegener said. "Because you're not allowed to jump off the George Washington Bridge legally."
As the coronavirus spread in New York, even just going to the laundry room in the apartment house began to seem too risky. As a doctor, she worried about bringing the virus into their home, about her husband coming down with COVID-19.
On March 21 they decided to move in with her son and his family in Portland, Ore. The next day, they left, with only carry-on luggage to cut down on waiting time in the airport.
They're still there, and she has no idea when they can return. Her son, who works for a company that makes environmentally friendly doors, works from home now and has had his hours cut back. She's giving piano lessons to her students in New York -- on WhatsApp or FaceTime or Google Duo.
"I'm still working as much as possible, and still in the political struggle as much as possible," she said. "I feel sad and guilty that I'm not saving lives, but it would be a suicide pact if I were practicing medicine."
The disease, she said, has revealed an illness in American culture, in the disparities stemming from race and wealth, and in so doing highlighted the need for a single-payer system.
"We can't go to Albany in person. Or hold rallies," she said. "We're not on the streets, we're not passing out literature. But we're spreading the word as much as we can."
David Longabaugh, 62, retired in January from his job as a truck driver for a gravel firm in upstate Brooktondale, N.Y. He has about $10,000 in his 401(k). He has a $12,000 judgment against him for unpaid medical bills.
"I decided to retire now because my body's been beat up so bad after 40 years of driving," he said.
"The hardest part," said his wife Tammy, 57, who is unable to work full-time because of a back injury she sustained while working in a dry cleaner's, "has been when you're fighting the big medical bills, even though you have insurance -- OK? -- and it's hard to find money for anything else. And now that he's retired it's going to be even harder."
They pay $1,000 a month in rent. David Longabaugh said he plans to go back to driving part-time in the summer, assuming the pandemic has abated, so he can make some money and keep his medical insurance. Tammy cleans house for an elderly man in their neighborhood.
David Longabaugh has COPD, so with the coronavirus at large he has been sticking to the house. "We keep him away from everybody," Tammy said. She has been doing the grocery shopping for half a dozen of their older neighbors.
She believes she had COVID-19 back in January. "It was nasty. I've never had anything like it before." She didn't seek treatment, because "me and hospitals just don't agree," but made an old-fashioned mustard plaster the way her grandmother taught her and wore it on her chest for two days. "I got through it OK," she said.
David plans to take Social Security this year, the earliest he can. He'll receive $1,136 a month. He counts himself as a conservative and thinks Congress should just get out of President Trump's way. COVID-19 has had a silver lining for him -- under a provision of the Cares Act that some Republicans tried unsuccessfully to kill, he will receive an extra $600 a week in unemployment insurance through at least the end of July.
Unlike Gregory Bates, who lives with his mother, or Julie Wegener, who moved in with her son's family, the Longabaughs have been able to stay in their own home. Their two grown daughters live several hours away in Pennsylvania. But Tammy was denied when she tried to make a disability claim because of her back, and she's at least five years away from getting Social Security. David's desire to keep working part-time is tempered by the nature of his work.
The problem is that physical and cognitive decline, which inevitably come with age, tend to arrive earlier for people with fewer economic resources. They are also harder for blue-collar workers to compensate for, or disguise. Sticky notes as reminders, working from home a few days a week, software to make computer screens more readable -- these are not options an aging truck driver can turn to.
Still, David and Tammy are remarkably good-humored about their lot in life, much as the Kochs are. What can you do but laugh, David seems to be saying, when events have conspired to reward you at the end of your long and diligent working career with poor health, no resources and a big tear in the social fabric?
Social Security isn't much, but he'll take it, even if he'd get more by waiting. "I'm going to get it now, because God only knows what's going to happen in the next few years," he said, and then started chortling. "Thank you, America." A sigh. "Well, I still love my country."