Nov 16, 2019

Axios Deep Dives

By Mike Allen
Mike Allen

Americans are living longer and working longer — out of choice or necessity.

  • This Axios Deep Dive — edited by managing editors Alison Snyder and Jennifer A. Kingson — unpacks how the trend will ripple through America.
  • Smart Brevity count: 1,155 words ... ~4½ minutes.
1 big thing: Retirement becomes more myth than reality
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Data: U.S. Census Bureau and PNAS; Chart: Naema Ahmed

The number of Americans in the workforce who are over 64 years old has tripled over the past 30 years, Stef Kight writes.

  • Why it matters: Delayed retirement is a sign of health and affluence for some, and a continued life of hardship for others.

The trend has broad implications for people of all ages — from younger workers mapping out their futures to older people planning their legacies.

  • 43% of Americans 45 years and older expect to outlive their savings, according to an Axios-SurveyMonkey poll.
  • 31% of Americans ages 40–79 said they would continue working into retirement age even without a financial need, according to a recent Harris Poll for TD Ameritrade.

The state of play:

  • On one hand, the average retirement age is just 63.
  • Poverty rates among the 65-and-older group have fallen.
  • Since the 1980s, Social Security benefits have risen along with wages.

The other side:

Reality check: The mechanisms that once ensured an easy retirement may be disappearing, but just a small percentage of American workers ever really benefited from pension plans.

  • "This image that we have that the prior generation of workers had generous pensions, is largely not right," said Steve Vernon of the Stanford Center on Longevity.

What's next: By the 2030s, one in five U.S. adults will be 65 or older, the Census Bureau projects. Life expectancy at birth will have risen to 83 from 79 in 2016, according to U.N. data.

  • It could become even more necessary for older generations to continue working, but opportunities for them may dwindle, especially for low-wage workers as jobs are automated.

The bottom line: A comfortable retirement at 65 is disappearing — and may have been mostly myth all along.

2. For seniors, an intractable housing crisis

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Housing affordability is becoming a central obstacle to Americans’ ability to retire, especially for those living on fixed and limited incomes, Kia Kokalitcheva reports.

The big picture: The high cost of housing is a growing problem for older Americans in supply-constrained and wealth-divided cities.

Driving the news: While developers of senior housing saw retiring baby boomers as a gold mine, many are finding the growing trend of "aging in place" — retirees remaining in their longtime homes — is leaving them with empty buildings, according to the Wall Street Journal.

  • "In a city like San Francisco where you can’t afford to retire, many of our members can’t afford to leave — they're in rent-controlled apartments," says Jacqueline Jones, whose nonprofit, NEXT Village, helps seniors stay in their homes.
  • There's a shortage of affordable housing for seniors.
  • Deanna, a 65-year-old retired social worker in San Jose, tells Axios she's been on one waitlist for five years.

By the numbers: Next year, the average Social Security monthly payment will be $1,503.

  • The average studio in San Jose was $2,017 in the second quarter of 2019.
  • A studio at Atria Senior Living in Foster City, Calif., costs $5,800 per month, according to its website.

What's next: The number of older renters earning 50% or less of their area’s median income is projected to grow to 7.6 million, according to a 2016 report from the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University.

Bonus: Where people 65+ are moving
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Data: U.S. Census Bureau. Chart: Axios Visuals
3. When Medicare is no longer enough
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Data: Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

The cost and threat of serious illness or disease is making retirement in America less secure, Bob Herman writes.

Why it matters: Qualifying for Medicare does not guarantee that older adults will skirt potentially ruinous medical bills.

  • Millions of seniors have also come to rely on the taxpayer-funded program for lower income people — Medicaid — and there's no indication that will slow down.
  • "I can't tell you how many times people talk about how unaffordable the costs are, how it wipes away life savings in short order," said Tricia Neuman, a Medicare policy expert at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

By the numbers: More than 12 million Americans — most of them over 65 — have both Medicare and Medicaid coverage.

  • This low-income population has some of the most expensive health care conditions and disabilities — averaging roughly $30,000 in annual spending per person.

Between the lines: Retirees who consider themselves middle-class increasingly resort to Medicaid when nursing home care or other costs consume their entire nest egg.

4. Poll: Retirement hopes and fears
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Data: Axios-SurveyMonkey online poll with a margin of error of ±2.5 percentage points; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Americans' sentiments about retirement illustrate the impact of growing socio-economic inequality in the country, Stef writes.

  • 69% of adults who make more than $100,000 annually said they were hopeful about their retirement, versus 49% of those whose income is less than $50,000, according to an Axios-SurveyMonkey poll.
5. The millennial retirement savers

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

In an age when "OK boomer" is a rallying cry for young people fed up with their elders, stereotypes abound of millennials spending money poorly, Jessie Li writes.

The big picture: Labor economist Teresa Ghilarducci tells Axios that millennials don't behave differently than prior generations — they're just thrust into different circumstances.

Yes, but: A small cut of the millennial population — known as "Super Savers" — sock away a significant percentage of their income for retirement.

  • According to a survey by the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies, 38% of millennials contribute more than 10% of their salary to employer plans, if offered.
  • They save more than Gen Xers (32%) and similarly to boomers (39%).
6. 1 ♠♥♦♣ thing: Bridge — the card game — is starting to advertise

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Bridge, the time-honored pastime of senior citizens (among others), has just begun a marketing campaign to attract new players, Jennifer Kingson writes.

  • "Try bridge," a newly launched website exhorts, calling the cerebral four-player table game "fast-paced and stimulating but most importantly, fun!"

Why it matters: While empty-nesters and retirees are bridge's bread-and-butter, the game's governing body wants to recruit people of all ages — newbies as well as former players.

By the numbers: The American Contract Bridge League has 163,000 members, who compete in duplicate bridge tournaments nationwide, but that number doesn't include the countless people who play bridge just for fun.

  • The majority of tournament bridge players are in their early 60s, married, with $200,000+ in income, a college degree or higher and no kids at home, an ACBL survey found.
  • But more than 50 colleges also have ACBL-sponsored bridge teams.
  • At any given time, about 50,000 people are playing bridge on their phones, tablets or laptops using apps and websites like Bridge Base, which hosts 1 million tables a year (= 4 million players).

To capitalize on the growing popularity of Eurogames (like Catan) among young people, Jeff Bayone, managing partner of the three big clubs in Manhattan (Honors, Cavendish and Aces), tells Axios he has just started up a Saturday afternoon board game program, run by local college students.

  • "Once we get these kids in to a bridge club and they learn that bridge is the ultimate game," Bayone says, "we are hoping they will start to think about investing the time and energy and work into learning it."
Mike Allen