If you had asked Glenda West about her retirement plan in January, she would have said it was rock solid.
Five months — and one pandemic — later, her meticulously calculated plan is in doubt. And as a small-business owner, she feels particularly vulnerable because there’s no safety net for America’s most intrepid entrepreneurs.
“It makes the future very uncertain,” said West, a lifelong Seattle resident who runs a small construction company with her wife, Juliana. “Even at the beginning of the year, I would have been saying, ‘Yeah, I have a steady plan for my retirement. I know how much I’m going to put away a year. I’m going to be fine.’ And now there’s no foreseeing that we’ll even be able to save anything this year. And what will the years coming look like? I may never be able to put that much away again. I mean, you kind of worry that your future could be tanked.”
The Wests are not alone. There are more than 2.1 million Washingtonians who are 50 and older, the time when thoughts turn to retirement. The coronavirus pandemic has left the retired (and those who soon hope to be) in limbo, with major pressures coming from every direction — financial, medical and emotional. And, as it has in so many parts of our society, the pandemic has exposed the seams in a system that already felt pretty shaky for all but the richest retirees.
The folks who have been making do by taking odd jobs, living under a tight budget and grinding now fear for their quality of life. They also have very hard choices to make going forward.
Many others, like the Wests, face an uncertain retirement — a prominent tenet of the American Dream that’s becoming increasingly difficult for most of us to realize.
“What I worry about more is not that I would never retire, but that I will never feel like I have faith as a retiree, that I could possibly be impoverished to the point that I lose the ability to really make choices for myself,” West said.
We talked to a handful of retirees who shared their experiences, and experts who offered advice on how to handle America’s largest financial crisis since the Great Depression. While there’s no way to predict the future, there are ways to mitigate the damage and reasons for optimism (for some).
Here are a few things we learned:
The first message: Don’t panic.
Many older workers and retirees are well invested, have received 401(k) matching funds or, best of all, have a pension. So keep calm and carry on with the plan. Sure, the market tanked there for a while. But don’t make rash decisions, and please stop checking your 401(k) daily.
“History shows that in a downturn, and even a really serious downturn, that the market does recover, right?” said David C. John, a senior strategic policy adviser at the AARP Public Policy Institute. “It usually takes some time, and just like watching the market from hour to hour, there are going to be ups and downs. It’s not going to be a smooth recovery up or a precipitous elevator drop down. Over time, your retirement savings will build back up.”
Even if you’ve taken a hit, be conservative. If you’re tempted to take advantage of the CARES Act provision easing penalties for withdrawing up to $100,000 from your retirement accounts, go easy and make smart choices.
“Don’t do it unless you absolutely have to,” John said.
Pulling out principal at a low point will keep you from reaping the benefits of the rebound. “Basically, you are damaging your future as much as if you pulled out the whole thing,” John said.
And if you’re near retirement, the pandemic is a great excuse to push that date back a little. Or a lot.
“If your retirement money is in the market and you can delay retiring, do it,” John said. “Just because you’ve reached age 67 or whenever it is, doesn’t mean that you have to retire, unless you don’t have any other choice. That allows your retirement assets, your savings plus Social Security to recover some before you start to draw it down on a regular basis to live off.”
Not everyone has the luxury of making their own decisions, though.
Karen Keller retired in 1998. Until recently, the sunny 75-year-old from Lacey, Thurston County, had a pretty solid plan in place. She gets her Washington state teachers pension and Social Security. And she’s been pulling in extra money as a substitute teacher — something many of the 17,500 retired members of the Washington State School Retirees’ Association do.
Coronavirus is forcing her to make an unexpected decision about her side hustle, which nets her $400 to $700 a month. She’s come to a disappointing conclusion: “It’s dangerous.”
“That’s no longer going to be there,” Keller said. “I have a 25-year-old grandson who’s disabled that lives with me. He has a small Social Security disability that he gets, certainly not enough to feed him and clothe him and things like that. So we’re going to have to do some meatless meals. If you’ve been out shopping for meat lately, you know that it’s really gone up. And we are comfortable on the bus.”
Folks like Keller and Robin Stroben, another retired teacher who’s considering ending her substituting gig, are also pinched in a fiscal loophole. Their version of the state pension plan doesn’t include regular cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs), so they’re living on dollars set at 1990s levels.
“And it’s not enough because our Legislature has not given us COLAs,” Stroben said. “And so we’ve not had cost-of-living increases for many years. There’s been little ones, but not enough to live off of. And so I have been substituting in the schools in order to get money, and now, of course, the schools are closed. And when they resume in the fall, hopefully, I’m not sure because of my age if I should risk returning to work.
“I was much more optimistic when I retired.”
According to a recent study released by The New School’s Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis, if the overall unemployment rate reaches 25%, 10.5 million older workers will lose their jobs. And those who don’t lose their jobs are at risk of losing their retirement coverage, which was already at a historic low of 41% in 2019.
The study concludes that 3.1 million older workers will fall into lifelong poverty in retirement due to the pandemic. Retirees were already being forced to shift away from the old idea of decades spent on a beach sipping fruity beverages. But with the U.S. unemployment rate at 14.7% at the end of April, even the idea of part-time work during retirement could be slipping away.
“We see a lot more people make the shift away from traditional retirement with people looking to work in their 60s and 70s,” said Amy Barnes, owner of Seattle’s Firebrand Wealth Management. “Sometimes it’s part time, sometimes it’s full time. And the frightening thing with the pandemic is just the unprecedented job loss we’re seeing. It’s also affecting a lot of those kind of gig economy jobs that a lot of retirees were using to make ends meet or just cushion their lifestyle a bit more.”
Barnes specializes in helping women and members of the LGBTQ+ community with financial planning. She says “the racial inequality we see across all levels of society plays out in the work force as well,” and the pandemic further exposes those inequalities. (LGBTQ+ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning, with the + denoting everything along the gender and sexuality spectrum.)
“If they haven’t had access to the higher-earning jobs, those employers who have a 401(k) with a nice match, that’s free money from your employer,” Barnes said. “A lot of folks don’t have access to that. And so you’re left with stocking away what you can, [something like] $6,000 a year into an IRA. And that’s great to do. And I encourage everyone to maximize that if they can. But $6,000 a year, it’s oftentimes not enough, even if you start early.”
This is West’s reality now. There’s less work than before the pandemic started. And what work her company can do is more expensive because of new policies, like separate bathroom and hand-washing stations, higher prices and time-consuming searches through stores’ dwindling inventory — and the city and state’s ballooning list of regulations.
“I’m 60, I’m 10 years out if I can work to 70,” West said. “When you have your income sliced in half, those things go out the window for now because you have to hang on to your money because you don’t know what’s going to happen. And it’s a very scary prospect for us.
“And there’s also that fear, especially as a self-employed person, there’s that threat that then when it gets cold, we’re going to all have to go back in this coming November. And there’s no way to know right now.”
Celia Andrews is worried. She thought she had all these types of questions worked out when she retired way back in 1999. She’s got an 18-year-old car and doesn’t plan to buy another one. And she’s got a small pension and health care plan that should be guaranteed. But they’re from Boeing and, well, you’ve read the headlines.
A few years ago she would have just gone back to work. But at 78, she knows the job market is drying up — not to mention dangerous. The life expectancy of a 65-year-old is 20 more years. Like many retirees who are in the middle of that arc, she’s no longer sure her plan will last as long as she does.
“I really thought I had enough legs on my stool, but now I’m not so sure,” she said, adding, “One of my sisters said to me, ‘We didn’t know we were living a temporary-term life.’”
Andrews’ doctor has told her to stay away from others during the pandemic because of her health. But she’s got a roomy patio and she invites friends to sit and talk with her — at a safe distance. She’s concerned about what she’s hearing.
“I have quite a few friends in my age group that are retired and some of them really don’t have much at all,” Andrews said. “They’re basically living on their Social Security or something like that. Now, I don’t see how they can do it.”
The short answer is many of them won’t. The pandemic, especially if it continues for months or years as many predict, will cause a contraction in many retirees’ quality of life and force decisions that some might have once found unacceptable.
Barnes is considering moving her mother out of an assisted-living facility in Florida and up to Seattle. She finds the prospect of her mother living in a facility that could be vulnerable to coronavirus “terrifying.”
“I think we’re going to see a big shift in elder care,” Barnes said. “I’m seeing a lot of people rethinking where their parents live, where their grandparents live, a lot of people trying to pull their loved ones out of assisted living. I’ll be curious to see down the road if there’s a really big shift in thinking about assisted living in nursing-care facilities.”
Barnes is lucky. She has the financial wherewithal to help her mother make decisions. Not everyone will come out of the pandemic with the same ability. John, the AARP adviser, hopes the vulnerable are remembered as aid is given out.
“We have seen that this crisis today has especially hit people who are lower-income, or members of various minority groups or women or things along that line,” John said, referring to a report by the Federal Reserve outlining economic vulnerabilities exacerbated by the pandemic. “And one of the things that is going to be essential as we recover from this is making sure that these groups of people more than any others have the opportunity to save, and to find ways to protect themselves from this sort of thing in the future.”