Three quarters of the country’s 78 million boomers expect to work until the age of 70. But will employers still love them when they turn 65?
Boomers bring to the retirement years a huge talent pool that never existed before in the history of humankind: tens of millions of highly educated and experienced people who are in relatively good health, nearly free of childcare responsibilities, and mostly eager to continue to contribute their skills and institutional memories to making America better.
Three quarters of the country’s 78 million boomers were working when they hit 60 (in 2006) and most told pollsters they expect to work until 70. Many anticipate working indefinitely — and not only out of necessity. Under optimal conditions, many have a life expectancy somewhere in the vicinity of 90. Their predecessors, who today range in age from 65 to 74, are the most able-bodied geezers who ever walked the plains of America: 88 percent of men and women between 65 and 74 are healthy enough for work.
But will employers still love them when they turn 65?
They will probably pick off only those who are web-savvy, worth their weight in a wealth of connections in their field, and wedded to a high-maintenance lifestyle. The difference in health and life expectancy between the most and least affluent Americans is striking. The richest Americans, who can afford private medical care, had a 3-year advantage in the 1980s over the average life span of the working poor and below. In the last two decades, the advantage of the superrich has doubled.
Before the global economic meltdown, successful boomers were watching their stock portfolios fatten and salivating over dreams of retiring earlier than ever and triangulating between fishing in Newfoundland, skiing in Aspen, and restocking their wine cellar in southern France. No one gave much thought to the prospect of millions of Americans attempting 40-year retirements, financed by 30 years of work. The rude awakening only hit when people saw their portfolios shrivel in 2007- 09. Employers were way ahead of them, many having shifted all the risk of retirement savings onto workers through defined-contribution plans. Suddenly, 70 percent of boomers found themselves helping to bail out their adult children and paying for health care costs for their parents while struggling to pay down college loans, credit card debt and a mortgage that suddenly looked voracious against an anemic housing market.
Will social mobility correct for this problem? The gulf between the have-it-alls and what used to be America’s middle class has widened to Great Lakes proportions. The middle class has been stagnant or slipping inexorably down the class ladder for the past 20 years. The only people who can still confidently answer the question “Am I richer than I was a decade or two ago?” are the top one percent of Americans.
The average after-tax income of the richest 1 percent of households rose from $337,100 a year in 1979 to more than $1.2 million in 2006 – an increase of nearly 260 percent. Once they lock onto astronomical fees as CEOs or financial advisors or partners in top law firms or private medical groups, this echelon keeps compounding its wealth. More than 70 percent of the highest earning one percent of American households in 2004 were also among the highest earning five percent of households in 1994. Those households now have an average net worth of $15 million.
Let’s look at most everyone else – the 80 percent of households below the top five percent. Their average net worth was around $82,000 in 2004, and that includes the money they had tied up in their homes before the bottom fell out of the American dream.
If Congress ever does increase the legal retirement age to 70, it will require black men to work longer than they are expected to live. Affluent white women now live, on average, 14 years longer than poor black men in America.
The have-it-alls lock in their advantages in midlife if not before. Executives benefit greatly by being able to afford private medical care. The difference in life expectancy between the most and least affluent Americans nearly doubled over the last two decades
As of the 2006 U.S. census, almost two thirds of federal, state, and local government workers were all over 40 years of age. How many will be able to hold on to their jobs past 65, given the anti-populist Republican movement bent on overturning 50 years of union bargaining rights? And when they run into forced retirement, how many big -ox stores will be eager to hire grey-haired stock clerks and grannies as greeters?
It’s beginning to look like the boomers who will be willing and able to work beyond their sixties and perhaps into their eighties are affluent white men and their wives. They may be motivated by wanting to extend the lifestyle to which they are accustomed, even after the company credit card is null and void. And some may be shamed into paying off mortgages for their much-poorer adult children or staking their grandchildren to college.
It’s payback time for wealthy boomers.
Journalist and lecturer Gail Sheehy is the author of 16 books about adult life stages, including Passages in Caregiving: Turning Chaos into Confidence. This story appears in USA Today