Financial Hardship Postpones Retirement
Baby Boomers Still Trapped in Daily Grind
By BETSY STARK
June 30, 2008
At 72, an age when most Americans have been retired for a decade, Carol Lesker still finds herself in the daily grind.
"Eight to 5 ... and sometimes I don't even get to take lunch because, you know, it gets very busy," Lesker told ABC News. Lesker has worked since she was 18 years old, and never imagined the stress of a full-time job weighing her down into her 70s.
She said she rarely gets to take a full week of vacation, and she often wishes, when she hears friends talk of trips to Italy or homes in Florida, that she could "stop working tomorrow."
"I have friends that aren't working, and they keep saying, 'Oh, Carol, you need to come and play with us,'" she said. "I kept saying to them, 'Well, a few years, I'm going to work a few years.' But, I didn't know the economy was going to go this way."
The sour economy has made retirement more elusive than ever for many Americans. Nearly one in five now worries, as Lesker does, that they will never be able to stop working.
The cost of food, gas, and almost everything else is rising, except for home prices and stock market investments, which many seniors counted on to fund their retirements. Lesker's IRA, heavily invested in bank stocks, has plunged in the past year.
"You know, it's a very scary thing what's happening in the stock market, and when I wake up in the morning and see the gas has gone up again, it's very discouraging," Lesker said. A recent report predicted gas prices would increase to $7 a gallon in the United States within two years.
A self-described "scrimper and saver," Lesker said she limits her driving and shops for groceries on Wednesdays, when the local Publix and Kroger's have a 5 percent-off senior discount. She has given up her $600-a-year gym membership and works out at home. But she worries that prices are rising too fast, while her savings have fallen. "I've done the numbers and I'm losing money in my retirement IRA and I feel like I need to keep working," she said.
Alicia Munnell of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, said Lesker is not alone.
"These are scary times for everybody," Munnell said. Americans who stop working at 62 enter retirement with average savings and investments of just $160,000, and they're likely to live another 20 years.
"They just really don't have a lot of financial wealth to support themselves through a long period of retirement," Munnell said.
Experts say many could improve their finances dramatically by working for four more years, until they reach 66 and become eligible for full Social Security benefits.
If you retire today at 62, the average monthly benefit check is $1,245 a month. But if you wait until 66, it increases to $1,778. It grows to $2,400 a month if you continue working until 70.
"If you can keep working longer, you definitely should. Our view is that everybody should try to stay in the labor force until 66," says Munnell.
However, in today's flailing economy, it's hard to feel financially secure, no matter how long you postpone retirement. Lesker has worked longer and saved more than average Americans, but she is still uncomfortable about giving up her job and living on a fixed income.
"I don't want to make a decision until I think that things are turning around," she said.
So, for now, it's still Monday to Friday, 8 to 5, a while longer.