By Andrew Moran and Emel Akan
For close to 47 million Americans, it was the best of times, and it was the worst of times. Indeed, the current cost-of-living crisis devastating millions of seniors nationwide has forced many to look back at the choices they made throughout their prime working years.
Did they save and invest enough? Did they clock in enough hours during their career? Could they have put more money aside for a rainy day?
The last time inflation was this high, Dennis O’Connor, an 82-year-old retiree from Temecula, California, says he and his peers were able to weather the storm of rising prices. Today, however, they have limited options.
“When the last events occurred 40 years ago, we were employed. The overriding concern is we cannot plan retirement a second time,” he told The Epoch Times. “When you are younger and working you can recover. Retirees will never have that option.”
Before retirement, O’Connor served as councilman and mayor for City of Oak Forest. He also worked as a senior executive on some of California’s large infrastructure and environmental projects.
“Like most retirees, we are from the Silent and Boomer generations, and many are children of the Greatest Generation who experienced World War II and the Great Depression,” he said.
“We were told to save for retirement, don’t depend on Social Security as it may not be there, contribute to a company’s 401(k) or put money away,” he noted.
Many retirees depend on a fixed income from their pension plans or Social Security checks and their investments and emergency reserves are being imbibed by inflation.
“Like most of America’s retirees, I am frightened,” O’Connor adds, noting that many seniors have no experience dealing with inflation and recession during retirement.
He’s especially worried about women from his generation.
“They had greater challenges because of lower wages, lack of available retirement plans, and the breakdown of the family.”
In addition, the stock and bond markets have had a rough year, and it could be a while before investors see a recovery in their portfolios. The bear market has led to investment valuations crumbling as much as 20 percent for O’Connor. His aggressive funds have tumbled between 35 and 40 percent.
According to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, Americans lost $1.4 trillion in their 401(k) accounts and an additional $2 trillion in their individual retirement accounts (IRAs) in the first half of this year.
Now that the specter of recession clouds over the nation, there is even more uncertainty for the markets.
“Sadly, I and most retirees thought our futures would be comfortable, but now that is in doubt,” O’Connor said.
A recent survey by Allianz found that more than half of Americans are being forced to reduce or stop their contributions to their retirement savings. Forty-three percent say they dipped into their savings, while 72 percent of Baby Boomers are concerned that growing living costs would affect their retirement plans.
Back to Work
Today’s generation of retirees is now seeing every aspect of their lives dented by broad-based and persistent inflation. Gas prices, grocery store prices, and electricity bills have all increased by double digits this year.
KT Hundsen—she chose to use a pseudonym to protect her identity—62, lives in a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota. She and her husband of more than three decades led responsible lives. They pay their bills at the end of every month and refrain from carrying debt. The couple paid off their mortgage last summer and saved money while never overspending.
“We did the very best job we could to prepare for our senior years,” Hundsen told The Epoch Times.
Her household lives on a few income streams, including Social Security, her husband’s pension, and an annuity that he withdraws a certain amount from each year. The issue is that the income has been less than they anticipated because a cost-of-living adjustment is not attached to the pension.
Her husband, 67, retired last summer. But the inflationary economy has forced him to return to work as a janitor at church. Although he had intended to work only eight to 10 hours per week, he has doubled his hours to help cover the cost of his wife’s $600-per-month health insurance premium.
The concept of “unretirement” has gained popularity this year. Like her husband, many older Americans are returning to the workforce or abandoning the concept of retirement altogether. According to data gathered by Bayard Advertising, a recruitment advertising agency, 64 percent of adults between 55 and 64 years of age returned to the workforce this past spring. About one-third of seniors think they will work through the age of 70 or never retire, a study by BlackRock discovered.
While the extra money has been of tremendous help to the Hundsens, they receive some other perks from the church.
“If they have an extra gallon of milk, he can bring it home, and then I make cheese with it,” she said.
She also feels like she should be working, but employment prospects with her credentials are hard to find.
Meanwhile, in response to growing food costs, Hundsen is making other changes, especially after seeing the steady rise in prices at the supermarket. She usually buys turkey meat, but it was $11.99 a pound at the deli, “so I didn’t buy it.” She is using her garden more often and putting the items in jars for canning.
“I’m doing more of that than I have ever done before,” she said. “But there are limits to how many adjustments we can make.”
When property taxes increase, gasoline prices go up, and other month-to-month fixed costs continually climb, everything start to add up.
Doing Everything Right
According to estimates from Bloomberg economists, inflation costs have added more than $5,000 a year to the typical family’s budget.
“I feel kind of gypped because we thought we did everything right,” Hundsen said. “We weren’t extravagant. We didn’t buy too much. We drove our cars for 15 or 20 years. We didn’t do anything fancy. And, I don’t know, it’s kind of stunning.”
“But I’m sure there are people who are much worse off than we are,” she added.
According to Clara Del Villar, director of senior initiatives at FreedomWorks Foundation, 40 percent of Americans have no savings in their retirement.
“So that means during these volatile times and during inflationary times, they do have to go back to work,” she told The Epoch Times. “Their skills may not be up to date. So, you do see them more in Walmart or other big box retail stores.”
While Hundsen is hopeful conditions will get better, she is not optimistic about all the debt the U.S. government has saddled her two sons and their family with for years to come.
“There’s no good solution. That will be painful,” Hundsen said. “It’s depressing to think, how will we ever dig ourselves out of that hole?”
The national debt recently topped $31 trillion, while interest payments were approximately $400 billion last year. In other words, each taxpayer is on the hook for around $248,000 of the debt, and each adult is responsible for nearly $14,000 of the total interest paid.
The Forgotten Americans
Although their stories are all too common in this climate, O’Connor feels that retirees are the forgotten ones because their life challenges are not understood by the news commentators, editors, policymakers, and the social media crowd.
“We have no spokesperson that understands the lack of control retirees are facing,” he said. “We have little margin for error, and how do you put a price tag on so many emotional issues?”
“It is unfortunate we have media and political leaders that show little interest in our value,” O’Connor added.
It is this bleak attitude—and then some—that is being felt throughout the country, Del Villar adds.
“I think there’s more anger out there, this being downplayed in the media,” she explained. “I think the media is really downplaying how destructive this inflationary force can be.”
Social Security recipients will receive a more than 8 percent increase in their benefits next year. Unfortunately, according to Del Villar, this will still fall short of helping seniors or retirees, especially during the fall and winter months, as overall energy costs are forecast to balloon by 20 percent year-over-year.
This dire situation that has left too many seniors in the lurch could lead to a broader conversation about the state of retirement, says Laurence Kotlikoff, a professor of economics at Boston University and a New York Times best-selling author.
Be it the tax impact on Social Security checks or the public failing to examine their employers’ 401(k) program adequately, it has been “an experiment fiasco” for far too many people.
Considering that Social Security’s cash reserves are projected to run dry by 2034 and that unfunded liabilities exceed $163 trillion, that conversation might need to happen sooner rather than later.
Inflation is embedded in nearly every component of the U.S. economy. Stocks are stuck in a bear market, the post-pandemic economy is slowing down, and taxes are on the rise.
These features of the current economic landscape leave too many senior Americans struggling to keep their heads above water. What should be a time to relax, do things they love, and spend time with the grandkids is now being spent by millions of retirees or soon-to-be retirees to head back to the workforce or squeeze every penny.
This is not how older Americans thought their golden years would be.