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What's the Future for the Retirement Security of Women?

Why the crystal ball looked cloudy at the WISER summit

By Kerry Hannon

If you want to know what prospects for the retirement security of women in America look like, you couldn't do better than hearing what a bevy of brilliant experts said at the recent day-long virtual summit of the Women's Institute for a Secure Retirement (WISER).

A woman standing up at a podium making a speech. Next Avenue, women retirement security
WISER's Cindy Hounsell is optimistic about retirement prospects for women  |  Credit: Courtesy of WISER

I was fortunate to be a participant, where WISER (a Washington-based advocacy group) celebrated its 25th anniversary by looking at how far women have come in their ability to retire well and, sorry to say, how far they still have to go. After the summit, I followed up with some of the speakers for more of their insights.

Cindy Hounsell, WISER's energetic founder and a 2015 Next Avenue Influencer in Aging, reflected on what things were like when her organization began in the late 1990s and how she sees the future for the retirement security of women.

Starting a Retirement Discussion 25 Years Ago

"What we did was we started a conversation early on," Hounsell told me. "Back then, you couldn't find anybody to talk about all of these older women in poverty. People would just look at me and say, 'Well, it's the way it's always been.' That has changed in a big way. People talk about it now."

"When Cindy started WISER, I would say there was practically nobody really thinking about women's retirement issues."

Anna Rappaport, an expert on the impact of change on retirement systems and workforce issues who spoke at the WISER summit, agreed.

"When Cindy started WISER, I would say there was practically nobody really thinking about women's retirement issues. They were oblivious. Whereas today, a lot of people are thinking about them, and a number of financial service companies recognize them," she said. "There's a lot more sensitivity and concern about women's issues."

While many of the WISER summit speakers spoke forebodingly about retirement prospects of older women in America, Hounsell was somewhat upbeat.

"I'm more optimistic than probably a lot of other people, because I think we'll have better tools," she said. Already, Hounsell noted, it's become easier for women to access personalized retirement information — such as through the new, simpler Social Security Statements they can get on the Social Security Administration's website.

"And that's a big part of what we've tried to tell people; that you need to become your own advocate," said Hounsell. "You need to get that financial information like you would with a health situation."

Rappaport was cautiously positive, too.

"There is a greater awareness of women's retirement issues than twenty-five years ago," she told me. "Access of women to professional jobs has improved greatly. Now, that is not to say there are as many women as men in the C-suite. It's still a harder road for women. But nevertheless, there are some women CEOs, there are more women on boards."

Concerns About Retirement Prospects for Women

I was glad to hear some optimism about the future from Hounsell and Rappaport. But there are still many current trends that have me — and many of the summit's experts — concerned.  

As Catherine Collinson, CEO and president of the Transamerica Institute and the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies, as well as a WISER summit presenter an an Influencer in Aging, recently wrote: "Despite progress made in recent decades, women continue to be at greater risk of not achieving a financially secure retirement than men, in large part due to the gender pay gap and time out of the workforce for parenting and caregiving.

A woman wearing a pink sweater, smiling. Next Avenue, women retirement security
Ramsey Alwin, National Council on Aging  |  Credit: Courtesy of National Council on Aging

Another WISER summit speaker, Ramsey Alwin, president and CEO of the National Council on Aging, told me she thought that "over the next ten years, women of all ages will be rushing to make up for lost wages and savings due to exiting the workforce for caregiving responsibilities."

But, she feared, "without intentional investment in caregiver supports and quality job creation, it is not clear that we'll be able to restore women's labor force participation to pre-pandemic levels."

That would have implications for long-term personal financial stability, including the adequacy of Social Security benefits, Alwin said.

"Given that women are already more likely to age into poverty, this trend is troubling," she added.

A few other troubling factors at play:

More than half of working women (51%) say their financial situation has been negatively impacted by the pandemic. That's one of the chilling findings in "Life in the COVID-19 Pandemic: Women's Health, Finances, and Retirement Outlook," a new study by the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies in collaboration with the Transamerica Institute.

"Amid the pandemic, many women have been stretched beyond their limits, balancing work and family. Given these pressures, some have given up their employment and dropped out of the workforce altogether," the report noted.

Nancy LeaMond, AARP's executive vice president and chief advocacy & engagement officer in Washington, D.C. and another Next Avenue Influencer in Aging, presented recent statistics at the WISER summit that were especially bleak: "Since the beginning of 2020, four in ten working women age forty to sixty-five experienced job loss, reduced hours, furlough, temporary layoff, or reduced wage."And, LeaMond noted, 58% of women 65+ now live in poverty.

Boomer women have a paucity of emergency savings. They've saved a median of $7,000 in emergency savings compared to boomer men with $25,000, according to Transamerica.

Women are less likely than men to have saved for future medical bills. A recent survey of over 1,100 beneficiaries 65 and older, by MedicareGuide, found women are twice as likely to not have savings for medical bills, compared to men (21% to 11%). While 41% of men 65 and up have more than $6,000 in savings for medical bills, just 28% of women that age do. No surprise that 51% of the women surveyed said they're concerned a health situation could lead to bankruptcy or debt vs. 40% of men.

A bar chart showing survey answers to why women are working past the age of 65. Next Avenue, women retirement security
Credit: Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies

Black women are especially vulnerable to health and wealth issues affecting their retirement prospects. Many have spent their careers in low-wage jobs, Rodney Brooks wrote in his excellent new book, "Fixing the Racial Wealth Gap: Racism and Discrimination." And, he wrote, "they are also likely to outlive their partners and are more likely to grow old alone and in poverty."

Brooks noted that Black women in the U.S. who work full-time are typically paid just 63 cents for every dollar paid to white men. Black workers, and Black women in particular, are less likely to work for employers that offer retirement benefits.


Other worrisome trends Rappaport noted: An increasing inequality by economic status, a decline of traditional pension plans and retiree health plans, the growth in gig employment and low-benefit jobs and the small declines in overall gender pay gap. "I would expect modest, but not dramatic, continued change for women in the workforce and pay equity," Rappaport said.

And yet, Hounsell remains optimistic. That's partly because she thinks policymakers will take steps to help.

What Washington Could Do

"The Saver's Tax Credit, which the majority of women are unaware of, will be improved in the future," she said. "This will be a significant benefit for many women."

Black women in the U.S. who work full-time are typically paid just 63 cents for every dollar paid to white men.

It's a tax credit that's effectively a match for retirement contributions made by low- and middle-income people. The lower your income, the bigger the credit rate you qualify for. Congress is considering raising the income limits for claiming the Saver's Credit and simplifying the tax-filing requirements to take the tax break.

Alwin hopes Congress and the Biden administration will also enact what's being called The SECURE Act 2.0. This legislation would, among other things, extend employer-based retirement savings offerings to more part-time workers; increase retirement plan "catch-up contributions" (additional amounts people 50+ can put in) and make the Saver's Tax Credit refundable, to lower your tax liability no matter how much you owe in taxes.

That bill "would go a long way for women, especially women of color," Alwin said.

Alwin also wants to see passage of the Protecting Older Workers Job Applicant Act (which would prohibit employers from age-discriminatory hiring practices) and the Supporting Older Workers Act (which would invest in broader job training and job placement for older workers).

 "This would be a win for all involved — workers, employers, society and the economy," she said.

Photogtaph of Kerry Hannon
Kerry Hannon is the author of Great Pajama Jobs: Your Complete Guide to Working From Home. She has covered personal finance, retirement and careers for The New York Times, Forbes, Money, U.S. News & World Report and USA Today, among others. She is the author of more than a dozen books including Never Too Old to Get Rich: The Entrepreneur's Guide to Starting a Business Mid-Life, Money Confidence: Really Smart Financial Moves for Newly Single Women and What's Next? Finding Your Passion and Your Dream Job in Your Forties, Fifties and Beyond. Her website is Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon. Read More
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