Meet the Americans who can’t retire

art-4-art/Getty Images; Adobe Firefly; Jenny Chang-Rodriguez/BI

  • Retirement is becoming a luxury in the US, with many older Americans in tough financial straits.

  • The decline of pensions and the rise of student-loan debt are contributing to the retirement crisis.

  • Business Insider spoke to several retirement-age Americans about why they’re still punching the clock.

Marcia is in her 70’s and she’s still working.

She clocks over 40 hours weekly in her salaried human resources role at a medium-sized company.

“As much as I love my job and what I do, in my darkest private moments, I think I’m going to die in this job. I’m going to die in this office because I have no way to get out,” she said. For her, work means both dignity and a financial lifeline. She’s far away from family and doesn’t have help or a second income she can rely on.

One of the main reason she hasn’t been able to retire is that she’s been “overwhelmed” by medical bills from both her husband’s cancer diagnosis — he died two years ago — and now from her own cancer diagnosis.

“I was hoping that my husband and I could retire together. And I guess my biggest misjudgment was I didn’t plan on being alone financially, emotionally, and one could say I should have, but I didn’t,” she said.

Marcia is one of many retirees who feel left behind by the American dream’s promise that a life of hard work would be rewarded with years of rest. Now, as with many traditional economic milestones, retirement has become a luxury reserved only for those who can afford it. More people over 65 are working as pensions disappear, people live longer, and Social Security benefits are seemingly always in peril.

It all points to a retirement crisis sweeping its way across the country. Business Insider spoke with several Americans of retirement age about why they are still trading their time for money. Their identities have been verified, but a few asked to go by their first names only to preserve their privacy.

“If I get the chance, I would like to help other people by sharing the experience and supporting people and maybe finding some solutions to these issues,” Marcia said. “I think older people become very invisible, and maybe it’s going to take other older people to help heighten that visibility.”

No more pensions while debt stacks up

The figures are stark: Just under 20% of Americans 65 and older were employed in 2023, up from 11% in 1987, per a 2023 Pew report.

In 2007, 21% of low-income households had a retirement account balance; by 2019, that fell to 10%, according to an analysis from the Government Accountability Office. And as younger generations try to save while also paying off homes and student loans, it might only worsen.

Steve Biddle, 69, is one of those Americans who has been punching the time clock for over 50 years. Through his long career, he’s competed on Jeopardy and worked in radio as a broadcaster and a advertiser.

He lives in a small, low-income apartment in North Carolina. He’s one of the older adults trapped in a precarious lifestyle balance: He needs that part-time job to stay afloat, but it might also push him out of low-income housing and SNAP eligibility. He’s worried that, at some point, he’ll become infirm and unable to work.

“I’m scared to death of the possibility of homelessness. I don’t think I could handle that very well,” he said. “I think I’ll always be able to have a place to be, but there are so many homeless folks my age that it scares me to death.”

Indeed, an analysis from the Office of Behavioral Health, Disability, and Aging Policy and Westat finds that “the number of older adults at risk of and currently experiencing homelessness has increased rapidly in recent years,” with Americans 55 and older making up nearly a fifth of those in the US’s sheltered homeless population as of 2021. And that’s another situation that’s worsening, per the research, with the group of Americans who are 50 and older experiencing homelessness “estimated to triple by 2030.”

Bill, 71, is also still working despite retiring two years ago from a career in advertising. He’s had to return to work 32 hours a week to supplement his retirement savings, partially due to the high cost of living in Connecticut. He’s also contending with intergenerational financial strains. He said he will still be making payments on his kids’ college loans until next March.

Bill’s situation shows how the options available for retirees — and those who are eyeing it in the not-so-distant future — are changing.

“I certainly think that this is the first generation of parents retiring who have really taken on a lot of student loan debt,” Geoffrey Sanzenbacher, associate professor of the practice of economics at Boston College and research fellow at the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, told Business Insider. Indeed, higher-interest Parent PLUS loans were created in 1980, and have since ballooned to $112 billion in debt across the country.

At the same time, people are increasingly approaching retirement with mortgage debt — something Sanzenbacher attributes to, in part, the refinancing wave in the 2010s.

“In the future, we might have people paying off student loan debt for themselves,” Sanzenbacher said. “So whenever you have these debts, they’re just taking away from what you need to retire, and so you’re going to have to either work longer or consume less when you retire.”

And, of course, there’s the end of the pension era. As the Congressional Research Service documents, the last five decades have seen a new “notable” trend in the country’s retirement system: US workers today are more likely to be covered by 401(k)-type plans and less likely to be covered by more traditional pension plans.

Traditional pensions, known as defined benefit plans, are the ones that pay out fixed amounts, sometimes based on how long workers stayed at their company and how much they were paid. In contrast, a defined contribution plans like a 401(k), pays out based on how much someone contributes to the account throughout their career and is subject to market fluctuations.

For decades, traditional pension plans meant a steady retirement guarantee. On average, Americans who have pensions receive $25,000 annually from them; the average estimated annual Social Security benefit is $38,418 for 2024.

“My father retired from Ford Motor Company, and my mom, who’s 96, still receives a full retirement from them even after my father has passed away,” Debra Giarrusso, 70, said. She’s currently looking for a new job, even after working for 50 years in roles where she didn’t always have access to retirement benefits.

“I’m afraid to go out of the house. I can’t buy food, I can’t get gas in the car. I can pay my base bills and that’s it,” she said. “I’ve found myself having to go to food pantries, something I’ve never had to do previously.”

Meanwhile, the prevalence of 401(k)-style retirement plans has contributed to inequality as those in higher-income professions tend to contribute more to their accounts over the years. The share of low-income households with a retirement account balance plummeted from 2007 to 2019, per the GAO report. Meanwhile, higher-income households have seen their retirement account balances dwarf those of middle-income households.

And when retirement is tied to your salary and how much you can contribute, inequities get baked in.

“Typically, women are paid less than men for the same positions,” one hopeful retiree, a 61-year-old in the Philadelphia suburbs, told BI. She said she’s experienced wage gaps throughout her own career, something that’s not uncommon, especially for older women in America who are more likely than their male counterparts to have no retirement savings.

“When you stop and consider that women tend to live longer than men, we actually are the ones who need more money to be saved up for retirement than men — because we need to make that money last longer,” the hopeful retiree said. “And it affects everything because if you’re making less, then if there’s a 401(k) match, you’re getting the match on a lower salary.”

The situation is already dire for some, and it might only get worse

Pam is nearly 58. But that doesn’t mean retirement is coming anytime soon.

She’s already living paycheck to paycheck on what she says is around $46,000 a year. If she ever does have to retire due to infirmity or inability to find a job, she doesn’t know how she will be able to make things work on an income even lower than that.

She said she thinks often about Kurt Vonnegut’s “Welcome To The Monkey House,” a fictional short story that is, in part, about ethical suicide parlors.

“I find myself hoping that maybe that fictional option will be realized because people are just not going to be able to live without suffering if things continue the way they are — and we’re living longer, yet, they’re willing to hire up less,” Pam said.

And there’s more systemic problems looming for the Americans who are perhaps not quite retired yet, but hope to throw in the towel in the next few decades.

“The long-term adequacy of the Social Security system is going to be of paramount importance in terms of just having an income stream for people to rely on,” David Certner, legislative policy director at the AARP, told Business Insider. Indeed, BI’s analysis of retirement data has found that nearly 80% of retirees have Social Security income.

In addition to safeguarding the future of Social Security, one longtime goal is to ensure that people have the opportunity and ability to accrue savings to supplement those benefits, according to Certner.

“People at the top part of the income scale tend to be the ones most likely to have a retirement plan and also tend to be the ones who have enough resources and assets to be able to put away money on a regular basis,” Certner said.

That might come from legislation creating retirement savings programs or setting up automatic savings plans. Programs like that could fill in the gaps for workers whose employers are too small to have a retirement arrangement or those who work in the gig economy.

Of course, not every would-be retiree is working out of necessity. Rebecca, a 69-year-old teacher in Michigan, used to think she would retire at the age of 65. But she wants to keep teaching. It’s a true labor of love for her.

“It’s not easy, but it’s rewarding,” she said. “And when I stop thinking that every day is an adventure, then maybe I’ll get the message.”

That might be a best-case scenario for a path more people have to take, especially as Social Security benefits are potentially less, and future generations are far more reliant on their 401(k)s — which themselves are subject to market fluctuations.

“I think one thing people should think about while they’re in their fifties is, am I doing a job that I would be happy to do a little bit longer if I had to?” Sanzenbacher said.

For Pam, the future is uncertain. Her place of work is being sold, and she’s worried that her artistic side hustle will be made obsolete by AI.

“Only the very wealthy are going to have any dignity in their old age,” Pam said. “And the rest of us are just going to pray that they can die while they still have a job because nobody wants to die on the street.”

Are you unable to retire? Contact this reporter at [email protected].

Read the original article on Business Insider