Has the Pandemic Changed the Future of Retirement?
A noted expert on aging explains why he's optimistic
COVID-19 has affected all of us in ways that may take years to fully understand. Our jobs and communities have changed. Goals and priorities have been questioned. New technologies have transformed our health services, entertainment, and shopping. We have seen the sad inequities and gulfs between the haves and have-nots.
Will this once in a century event change what we want and need in our later years? Will retirements be about the end of work, a gold watch, and life in an age-segregated community or something very different?
Images like these may reflect yesterday's reality, but they ignore evolving conditions and expectations that may shift more quickly because of our COVID-19 experience.
The New Definition of Retirement
Rather than "pullback," "retreat" or "withdrawal," in the words of the Merriam Webster dictionary describing retirement, an increasing number of today's retirement age adults say they want to keep learning, working, creating and contributing. They live and engage in intergenerational communities, serve as caregivers for friends and family and seek new and enriching experiences and relationships. They continue to search for meaning and purpose in their lives, pursuits that cut across class, race, gender and other distinctions.
We must do more to enable older adults to live the lives and retirements they say they want.
America's aging population is diverse, with wide variations in education, socioeconomic status and living conditions. There are disparate styles, interests, and values. But differences and personal preferences aside, we know that the odds of a purposeful and fulfilling retirement are substantially improved when older adults are financially secure, healthy and actively engaged. Yet far too many are at risk today, consigned to the sidelines, their hopes and dreams hindered by economic difficulties, disease and isolation.
We must do more to enable older adults to live the lives and retirements they say they want. The challenges must be confronted, not just for the benefit of the current generation of retirees, but for younger people — the retirees of the future who are often struggling to progress in their own lives.
Studies confirm that most people want to work longer due to financial need or a desire for ongoing stimulus and challenge. Yet the World Economic Forum found that less than one in three workers have the option to move from full- to part-time work and even fewer older workers feel that their employer offers opportunities suitable to their needs.
We know that continuous learning offers the prospect of better, healthier and more fulfilling retirements, but 22 million older Americans lack access to the technologies needed to realize the benefits of online learning, according to Older Adults Technology Services, a social service training and support group.
The Looming Large Retirement Mismatch
Too many Americans save little or nothing for retirement, and Social Security alone is insufficient to meet their needs. The Boston College Center for Retirement Research has determined that more than half of U.S. households are at risk of being unable to maintain their standard of living in retirement and New School researchers say that the COVID-19 recession accelerated unemployment and involuntary retirements among older workers, increasing the risks of widespread downward mobility.
The mismatch between financial resources and expenses in retirement looms large. According to the financial services firm Fidelity, a 65-year-old couple retiring in 2021 will need $300,000 to cover health expenses, including Medicare premiums, deductibles, and co-payments (but not including long-term care costs). The financial services firm Edward Jones and research and consulting firm Age Wave note that 58% of retirees cite health care costs and long-term care expenses as their greatest worries.
Ageism impairs the ability of older adults to find and keep work. AARP recently reported that 78% of older workers say they have seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace, the highest level since AARP began tracking this question in 2003.
Health problems can lead to early retirements and higher medical expenses, and conditions such as obesity, smoking, depression, and vision and hearing loss can negatively impact the quality of retirement years. Distressing life expectancy disparities across the U.S. attributed to a range of health and social determinants have recently been documented by New York University researchers.
We know much of what needs to be done.
Workforce policies and practices should enable longer and more flexible work lives, and negative age biases must be eliminated. Educational institutions must fully embrace the potential of older students and faculty and the possibilities of intergenerational learning.
We must provide widespread access to care and the elements of healthy living, including age-friendly housing, nutrition, mobility, social connection and assistive technologies.
Changing perspectives about the value and potential of our retirement years can make a difference, too. Positive views of aging are predictive of longer, healthier and more engaged lives. Researchers from Yale, Northwestern and many other institutions confirm that a sense of purpose in life is fundamental to psychological and physical health and well-being. Even those with wealth, health, education and advantage can benefit from a new understanding of the possibilities of retirement.
The Future of Retirement
Racial, gender and age gaps must be narrowed and equitable policies and practices advanced. By building bridges to work, learning, health and hope, we can ensure that all in our communities look forward to their later years with a sense of possibility rather than fear.
The road ahead will be rough, we know. But there is reason for optimism.
Both public and private sector solutions can secure more fulfilling futures. The road ahead will be rough, we know. But there is reason for optimism.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a tragic wake-up call and a rare occasion to take stock. That presents an opportunity — a moment to re-imagine and re-define retirement so more of us can realize our goals and the potential of the extra years of life that science and public health have conveyed.
With common cause, cross-sector collaboration and shared commitment, we will look back at the pandemic as a turning point that changed the future of retirement for the better.