How Scared Should I Be of Never Retiring?
How will you get by as an elderly millennial? Probably not very well.
Image by Sarah MacReading
In the column "How Scared Should I Be?" VICE staff writer and generalized anxiety disorder sufferer Mike Pearl seeks to quantify the scariness of everything under the sun. We hope it'll help you to more wisely allocate that most precious of natural resources: your fear.
Sometime before death, but after your useful phase, there's supposed to be this in-between time called "retirement" that sounds pretty great—sorta like childhood, but without anyone trying to teach you anything, and with more drinking.
But from time to time, someone around here repeats a depressing truism: Retirement will soon no longer be on the table thanks to the harsh economic and political realities of the 21st century. Just like the rest of my generation, I will supposedly spend my 60s, 70s, and maybe 80s, at my cluttered desk, eventually going into cardiac arrest one day in the middle of accidentally replying all for the ten-thousandth time.
But is the possibility of my retirement sometime before 2050 really as elusive as we've all come to believe?
One page on the website of the Social Security Administration says that because of "changes to Social Security enacted in 1983"—a reference to Social Security Amendments signed into law that year—the administration will stop being able to pay benefits in full in the year 2037, about a decade before I could ever reasonably hope to retire. Without Social Security, in order to eat, the wrinkly, gray-haired version of me will have to rely entirely on investment income, or money I wisely squirreled away during my productive years, something that's not currently happening.
But there's hope for an expansion in Social Security, according to Teresa Ghilarducci a labor economist at the New School, and author of the book How to Retire with Enough Money: And How to Know What Enough Is.For "the last 25 years" in her estimation, serious political debate has focused on how to privatize Social Security, or reduce payouts due to the eventual shortfall. That just flipped, she said. "For the past 18 months, there has only been discussion about how to expand it," Ghilarducci told me.
It's true that killing (or further maiming) Social Security doesn't appear to be on the political menu at the moment—at least not in the presidential race. Hillary Clinton's campaign website says she plans to "expand Social Security" for the not-yet-old "by asking the wealthiest to contribute more." And even Trump has now backpedaled away from his plan to raise the retirement age from 67 to 70, which he proposed during his 2000 presidential campaign.
Stashing away a percentage of your income every pay period is a bit like being told, "'Just hold a balloon underwater for the rest of your life,'" Ghilarducci said.
To be clear, no politician so far has rescued Social Security from the coming shortfall, but, Ghilarducci is sanguine: "Millennials don't have to worry about Social Security if they are willing to fight for it." And we likely won't have a choice but to fight for it, and the American Association of Retired Persons is a pretty powerful ally—one of the lobbies on Capitol Hill powerful enough to win policy fights against other lobbying giants like the big banks.
But even that might not be enough to keep the cat food flowing into my cat's bowl as I approach the grave. Looking at people who are currently old, the average retired American—any length of time from retirement—is making $31,742 annually, according to the most recent analysis, with a measly $16,020 per year of that coming from Uncle Sam (that's $1,335 per month). Nearly half of that income is coming from somewhere else—often, an investment.
Investing is complicated, Ghilarducci told me." If millennials were robots and they had the comfortable life of a robot with an Excel sheet, they could save 5 percent of their pay for 40 years, and at the end of those 40 years, redeem it." But in practice she said, it doesn't just work that way. Stashing away a percentage of your income every pay period is a bit like being told, "'Just hold a balloon underwater for the rest of your life,'" Ghilarducci said.
But my generation isn't just a bunch of fiscal slouches, according to Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at the consumer financial services company Bankrate.com. "Among adults under age 30, 14 percent had started saving for retirement while still in their teens, more than any preceding age group," said McBride, citing research carried out by his company. And millennials also seem to have a frugal attitude just in general, he went on. "[Millennials are] less consumption-focused, and are pretty squeamish about adding more debt and have a greater inclination toward saving."
"If you ask the question, 'Will millennials ever get to retire?' my retort will be: Employers will retire them."—Teresa Ghilarducci
But Ghilarducci pointed out that all that frugal thinking may be just that: thinking. It's not uncommon for us to already have $100,000 or more in debt annihilating our disposable income. When payday comes, the path of least resistance is to write a rent check, stock up on beans and rice, make a loan payment, and spring for a couple of beers with what's left. That's if we don't stupidly blow that month's money on new laptops we need for our jobs, or luxuries such as tanks of gas.
"If you get past all those temptations, you still have to guard yourself about the predatory practices of banks, and IRA and 401k administrators," said Ghilarducci. Indeed, in the wake of the financial crisis, financial experts began warning us that the mutual-fund industry—the industry that used the pooled investments of many people to buy shares of a large number of companies, in order to make safe, long term gains—was actually just a sort of waiting room for money, with fund managers pocketing a fortune, and investors only seeing a tiny fraction of what they expected.
Bankrate, for its part, advises against most mutual funds—the ones where someone actively uses your money to buy and sell stocks. "Eighty-five percent of actively managed mutual funds underperform their benchmark," McBride claimed. He recommended a "broad-based, low-cost index fund," instead. An index fund is a type of mutual fund that just sticks your money in a shit-ton of publicly traded companies that are part of a stock market index, like the S&P 500, and leaves it there for ages. Hopefully then, as the stock market trends upward over the decades, so does your savings. This is something we've covered before, by the way.
But I'd better figure out an investment strategy if I really do plan to reach 70-or-so-years-old, because according to Ghilarducci I literally have no choice. "If you ask the question, 'Will millennials ever get to retire?' my retort will be: Employers will retire them." She says while the angles on a good retirement will be tough to work out, there's no evidence that jobs for millennials in their 70s will exist. "In terms of their ability to work or keep up with their logical progress—the job requirements are changing a lot faster than human beings can be trained," she said.
But she's open to the possibility that in some future economic reality, a class of jobs could exist in which the elderly are "the new teenagers." In fact, that phenomenon is here already. "More and more older people are finding that they don't have the pensions, and they are having to enter the world of baristas and low-level service work," Ghilarducci said.