Jan Mutchler, PhD
DIRECTOR, GERONTOLOGY INSTITUTE; PRODUCER, ELDER INDEX
When I was first doing research on retirement 30 years ago, the focus was heavily on middle-class men. Researchers put a lot of effort into understanding the factors that shaped when (mostly white) men with pensions would choose to retire. The research now better reflects the diversity of pathways through later life, including not just chosen, permanent retirement but a variety of pushes and pulls out of the workforce as well as continued work far beyond what we’ve traditionally seen as “retirement age.” Women are clearly a bigger part of the retirement literature now, as well as people of color. And given the virtual demise of the defined benefit pension plan, the segment of the population carrying a level of financial certainty with them into retirement has greatly reduced.
Social Security benefits are the most widely held stable financial resource that older adults in the U.S. can access. The demographic pressure on the Social Security trust fund has been reasonably well understood for decades. It's disappointing, to say the least, that the needle has not moved in the direction of stabilizing this essential system.
Many people think that between Medicare and Social Security, older people are financially in good shape. This is a misconception. Our work shows that Social Security and Medicare alone are not enough to support an adequate retirement.
In the U.S. we talk a lot about inequality in financial and other arenas, but I don’t think people are sufficiently aware of the high level of inequality in later life. Whether we’re talking about health, financial well-being, or other outcomes—the inequality that shapes childhood, younger adulthood, and middle age carries into and may even be amplified in later life. Our research shows that single women and people of color have far higher levels of economic insecurity in later life than their counterparts who are coupled, white, and male.
Interestingly, people do not seem to realize how much cost of living impacts older adults. Even though all of us understand how much the cost of housing, transportation dynamics and the like impact our own family budgets, somehow it doesn’t register with people that older adults are impacted by those factors too. Reporters are always surprised at the huge difference across communities in the cost of getting by in later life. "