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The COVID Effect on Retirement

COVID-19 has changed the face of our country dramatically. My firm, Age Wave, in partnership with Edward Jones and the Harris Poll, set out to discover how retirees are faring today, compared to the general population of adults in both the U.S. and Canada. This groundbreaking study, called The Four Pillars of the New Retirement, began before the world had even heard of COVID-19. Once the COVID shutdown was firmly in place, we realized this study on the new retirement was also a chance to better understand how the pandemic is impacting and maybe even transforming the hopes, fears, and challenges of Americans in their journey to and through today’s retirement. 

We conducted focus groups, held online forums, interviewed subject matter experts, and surveyed a nationally representative cross-section of 9,000 people from five generations (ages 18+) in both the U.S. and Canada. The survey was fielded in late May and early June 2020, well into the COVID shutdown.

When we dug down deep into who was most impacted by COVID-19 and how they were impacted, what became immediately clear was the resilience and adaptability of retirees. This held true for both retired women and men, and we were surprised to find few differences between the genders.

What did retirees tell us? First, more than half of retirees say that retirement itself is being redefined. No longer is it just a time to wind down. Instead, both women and men agree that it is a whole new chapter in life with opportunities to find new purpose and meaning, explore new choices, and maybe even reinvent yourself.  One woman in a focus group told us, “I’ve always dreamed of volunteering my time to help others,” and another one reported, “I’ve always wanted to start my own business. Now I intend to do just that.”

While in the past retirement was synonymous with the end of work, that isn’t necessarily the case anymore. Two-thirds of those 65+ who work say they work because they want to, to a great extent because they enjoy the social connections work can provide. Retirement is coming to mean the freedom to choose whether you want to work and to define work more on your own terms.

Second, our study uncovered the resilience of retirees. There’s been a lot of focus in the media on how physically vulnerable retirees are to COVID-19, particularly if they are dealing with one or more chronic conditions such as high blood pressure or diabetes. But there’s been no mention of the fact that mental health actually rises with age. We found that older adults report coping far better than young ones during the pandemic. They have lived through recessions and disasters such as 9/11, which has helped them build their inner strength, fortitude, and emotional maturity.

When it comes to finances, retirees also have some distinct advantages over working adults, including safety nets such as Social Security and Medicare that help provide them with financial security. Seventy-eight percent have the advantage of owning their own home with 60 percent of them no longer having any mortgage payments at all. While so many working adults are struggling financially during the pandemic, retirees feel relatively financially secure.

COVID-19 has been an incredibly disruptive force in all of our lives. During these unsettling times, family members have turned to each other. In fact, 67 percent of Americans of all ages say the pandemic has brought their family closer together. In my own family, we now have weekly family Zoom meetings with our adult children to stay closely connected and help each other out in any way we can. My 33-year-old daughter Casey even moved back home from Los Angeles, where she was feeling unsafe living alone during the pandemic.

Families across America are doing whatever they can to support one another in every way possible, including financially. Twenty-four million Americans have provided generational generosity in the form of financial support to their adult children during the pandemic. Seventy-one percent of retirees in the U.S. say that they are willing to help their family members financially, even at the risk of jeopardizing their own financial future.

Retirees seem to be coping well, but what about Americans who are thinking about and planning for retirement? In terms of saving for retirement, we know that many working adults were not on a good track before the pandemic, and COVID-19 has thrown them even further off course. In total, 68 million Americans of all ages say their retirement timing has been impacted due to COVID-19, with the majority of those pushing out their timelines for financial reasons. Only half of men who plan to retire feel confident about how much they are currently saving. That number drops even lower for women with only 42 percent of women saying they feel confident. This is one of the few places we saw a difference between the genders.

Why this difference? Overall, most women view money more in terms of the security it can provide, and we’re clearly living in uncertain times. There are other valid reasons why women feel less financially confident than men: they live about four years longer than men, earn less over their lifetimes, save less for retirement, sometimes spend down their nest egg to help care for their spouse/partner and then often end up alone, financially on their own in the later years of life. It makes me nervous just thinking about it!

So what should women be doing now to feel more financially confident? First, this pandemic highlights the fact that we each have to expect the unexpected and prepare for it, including financially. That might sound trite and not even possible right now, but the pandemic will not go on forever, and our future may hold other unexpected bumps in the road for which we’ll need to be prepared. Second, we each need to consider what really matters most. We learned in our study that planning for and living in retirement is about more than just money. In fact, we found that there are four essential ingredients to living well in retirement today: health, family, purpose, and finances. Each of these areas needs to be planned for. The word “wealth” derives from the Middle English word “wele,” which was defined as overall well-being. This is a great reminder that money is an enabler of living well, not an end in itself. Each of us needs to recognize that and determine what matters in our lives, how we define our own well-being, and then make sure we take the steps to create the financial wherewithal to achieve that.  To access the complete study, please visit www.EdwardJones.com/newretirement.

Maddy Dychtwald is the Co-Founder of Age Wave, the world’s leader in understanding and addressing the far-reaching impacts of our aging population. Recently recognized by Forbes as one of the top fifty female futurists globally, Maddy Dychtwald has been deeply involved in exploring all aspects of the age wave and how it’s transforming the marketplace, the workplace, our world, and our lives for more than 30 years. Along the way, she has become an internationally acclaimed author, public speaker, Wall Street Journal blogger, and thought leader on longevity, aging, the new retirement, and the ascent of women. Go to www.agewave.com to learn more about Maddy.

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