On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Traditional pensions continue to disappear and wage stagnation has made it harder for people to save for retirement on their own.
Seniors are spending more of their golden years on the job and most of them live in metropolitan areas like the District.
For those over 65, continuing to work can have a positive impact on mental health and even stave off dementia. But for others, working can contribute to a health decline.
WAMU reporter Sasha-Ann Simons joins the show to talk about why seniors are working longer in D.C.
This show is part of a WAMU series highlighting the causes, effects and potential solutions to Washington’s affordability crisis.
Produced by Victoria Chamberlin
- Laura Ehle Maryland resident, map artist
- Richard Johnson Senior Fellow, Director, Program on Retirement Policy, The Urban Institute
- Sasha-Ann Simons Race & Identity Reporter, WAMU; @SashaAnnSimons
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Continuing with WAMU's new Affordability Project, seniors across the country are spending more years on the job, and research shows many workers over the age of 65 live in metropolitan areas like the District. For some, delayed retirement is a sign of good health and job satisfaction, but others simply can't afford to retire at 65, as traditional pensions disappear and rate stagnation has made it harder for people to make contributions to retirement accounts. Joining me in studio is Sasha-Ann Simons, race and identity reporter at WAMU. Sasha-Ann, thank you for joining us.
SASHA-ANN SIMONSHi, Kojo.
NNAMDIThe Washington metro area has one of the highest costs of living in the nation. And things like housing and healthcare are getting more expensive. How did we get here?
SIMONSIt's a good question, and, you know, the answer sort of depends on who you talk to. But just to put it in perspective for listeners, to live modestly in D.C. itself, a family of four needs to make nearly $124,000, which is a lot of money. And the suburbs are in a similar situation, where a family of four -- for example, in Prince George's County -- needs to make about $91,000. But the high housing costs in D.C. have become a new normal, and they put things out of reach for a lot of people.
SIMONSAnd it's created by a combination of things. It's, you know, supply and demand, the old supply and demand. You know, it creates a lack of affordability, because we just have way more people that are here and that are coming here, way more transplants that are coming here, and there just aren't enough affordable housing units available for all these people.
SIMONSThe dominance of single-family homes here in the District -- especially in neighborhoods full of amenities -- you know, couple that with a lack of amenities in denser neighborhoods, that's basically putting D.C.'s housing market in kind of like a pressure cooker, if I will. Construction costs, utility costs, transportation costs are up. And on top of all of that, stagnant wages. So, people are relying more on public subsidies than they were before.
NNAMDIWe hear a lot about the effect these costs have on young professionals and families, but seniors are not immune to it, either. How is it affecting their decisions about planning for retirement?
SIMONSWell, it's keeping them on the job for much longer, and that was sort of the crux of my story that aired this morning on Morning Edition. You know, while there are some seniors that delay retirement because they simply enjoy what it is that they do, they love their job, they've enjoyed their career and they want to continue reaping the social benefits that come with staying on the job, or working past 65, a lot more people are remaining in the workforce simply because they're being forced to do so, because they just cannot afford to.
SIMONSThe disappearance of traditional pensions, shrinking Social Security payments, things like that are forcing many seniors who actually want to retire to have to work longer. But delayed retirement does happen across the board, so it's important to mention that the type of people that are delaying retirement look different. And there are rich, there are poor folks. But ones that are being forced mainly are the ones with limited income and limited education, and predominantly people of color.
NNAMDIResearch suggests that many working seniors live in metropolitan areas. Why is that a trend?
SIMONSWell, it's a trend because, in the northeast, especially areas like the District, people are continuing to work past the age of 65, because this is just where all the jobs are, you know. And the types of jobs that we have here are unique to this area. So, government, finance, law, academia, those are the types of jobs that are here and that people are in. And so people just kind of end up staying on the job for a lot longer.
SIMONSThere's also some data out there -- according to an analysis of census data by the Associated Press -- among counties with at least 6,000 residents, about 12 percent have at least 21 percent of their seniors working or actively looking for jobs. And of that group, nearly a quarter of them are located within the northeast, or in Maryland or Virginia. So, a lot of folks in this area, in particular, which is the reason why I wanted to do this story.
NNAMDIJoining us in studio is Richard Johnson, senior fellow director of the Program on Retirement Policy at the Urban Institute. Richard Johnson, thank you for joining us.
RICHARD JOHNSONThanks for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIAs I said, you lead the Program on Retirement Policy for the Urban Institute. What are some of the broad trends in retirement that you have observed in your research over the last 25 years or so?
JOHNSONRight. So, the big trend is exactly what Sasha-Ann just said, which is that people are working longer. It is one of the most important trends we see in the labor market of the past 25 years. So, today, someone 65 and older is about 60 percent more likely to work than someone in that age group a generation ago. And this is being driven, as Sasha-Ann said, by -- a lot of it is being driven by just financial insecurity at older ages.
JOHNSONWe have these social security cuts, defined benefit pensions plans are disappearing, people are having trouble saving in their 401K plans, health care costs are rising, housing costs are high. People in retirement have more debt today than they ever have in the past. So, just a lot of financial insecurity that we're seeing.
NNAMDIAre there benefits to working into your late 60s and 70s?
JOHNSONThere are enormous benefits. Many of them are financial, but there are also non-financial benefits as well. But, by working longer, what you do is you increase your lifetime earnings. That allows you to save more. It increases the earnings base on which your social security benefits are based, on which your pension is based. And then it also shrinks the retirement period. So, by working a little bit longer, you don't have to stretch your nest egg as far. And so that can have a big impact, as well.
JOHNSONAnd, in fact, my colleagues at the Urban Institute have found that by working just one more year, someone can increase their annual old-age income by 9 percent. And for people with less income, they can increase it by 16 percent. So, it can have a big impact, financially. And then, also, it can perhaps improve your health. It can improve your emotional wellbeing. Going to work gives you purpose, gives you a reason for getting out of bed in the morning. You have these social networks. So, there's really a lot of benefits to work. The problem is, not everyone can work at older ages, but for people who can, it's a great thing.
NNAMDIWhat's the employment outlook for older people who are suddenly laid off and need to find a new job?
JOHNSONRight. So, that's a challenge.
NNAMDIA 60-year-old friend of mine just got laid off this past Friday.
JOHNSONYeah, I feel for him or her, because we know that older people, it takes them about twice as long to find a job as for people younger than 50. People 50 and older really have challenges. Part of that is simply because employers seem reluctant to hire older people. You know, they'll keep you on the job, but to bring in a new, older employee, they're a little more reluctant to do that. It seems to be, you know, unclear why that is. There's a sense that older workers are more expensive, so employers are reluctant to hire them. Their health care costs are a little bit higher, so that can be a deterrent factor.
JOHNSONAlso, there's a concern that, well, maybe older people don't quite have the skills we need, that their skills are outdated. And then there's a concern about, well, this person's old. He or she is going to retire soon, and so is it worth the cost of hiring and training and getting them up to speed if they're not going to be here that long?
NNAMDIIf you tuned into Morning Edition today, you heard from Laura Ehle, a cartographic technician from Capital Heights, Maryland who has made the decision to continue working after age 65. Laura Ehle joins us now in studio. Thank you so much for joining us.
LAURA EHLEOh, thank you.
NNAMDIWhy have you decided to stay in the workforce?
EHLEPrimarily financial. I haven't really given it a lot of thought, because I know I just won't have the money at 65. But I do enjoy my job very much.
NNAMDII'm glad you mentioned that, because a lot of us don't know exactly what a cartographic technician is. What do you do?
EHLEI work for a small, family-owned printing company that specializes in maps. And it's my job to sometimes create maps or fix maps, or whatever it takes to get it to press. That's my job.
NNAMDIAnd when you first started in this business you used to draw maps, right?
EHLEYes, we used to do...
NNAMDINow, it's a little different.
EHLEIt's much different. Yes, it was quite a transition in the late '90s and early 2000s going from the table to the computer, but it's been a lot of fun.
NNAMDIWhen did you first start to save for retirement?
EHLEWhen I got my current job in '86, I started my 401K then.
NNAMDIStarted in 1986.
NNAMDIAnd you feel, at this point, that you have not yet saved enough for retirement? Or is it both that and the fact that you love your job?
EHLEBoth of those, but I lost more than half of it in 2008. 2008 just hit a lot of us really hard.
NNAMDIIt certainly did.
EHLESo, it's kind of like almost starting over. Fortunately, my house wasn't in a risky place.
SIMONSAnd when we spoke, Laura, you talked about your savings account. There's not much happening there.
EHLE(overlapping) No. That got wiped out -- almost wiped out last year by the new tax laws. (laugh)
SIMONSSo, really, it's just the 401K.
NNAMDIWe go an email from Tricia in Gaithersburg, who said: I've worked my whole life, since I was 12 years old. I have a Masters Degree. Even with all of that, due to high housing prices in the D.C. region and my student loan debt, issued by the government at an outrageous interest rate, I will never been able to afford to retire, and I will work until the day I die. I have not been able to contribute to my IRA in years. I had to pull some of it out to buy a small condo to help stabilize my housing costs. Is that the kind of story you've been hearing about, Sasha?
SIMONSThat is definitely the type of story, and it actually breaks my heart. When I first pitched this story to my editor, Gabe, it was actually for personal reasons, Kojo. I was actually thinking about my father. He's 68. He works as a truck driver in Toronto, and it drives me insane that he's still working, because I just feel like the conditions under which he's working can be dangerous sometimes.
SIMONSAnd so, case in point, he recently took a bad fall on the ice up there, and, you know, it really got me thinking, though, what is like for other seniors who are still working? You know, fortunately, Laura works in a job that's not too strenuous. We talked about that as well, Laura, didn't we? And so it is something that you've been able to enjoy. But it made me think, you know, what about folks who just can't afford to stop? And my father, unfortunately, is one of those people. And that's where the reporting began. But I'm curious, Kojo. You have a big birthday coming up.
NNAMDII'll be 75 years old tomorrow.
SIMONSAnd you've chosen to work past retirement. Why?
NNAMDIWell, I blame it on the listeners. They keep listening to this broadcast, and that's one of the reasons I keep coming back. I could blame it on the producers. They keep producing good shows. So, that's one of the reasons that I keep coming back. But I also happen to love my job. However, even with all of those factors, there's always a smidgeon of uncertainty about my financial future.
NNAMDIAnd that's one of the reasons I also keep working, because with affordability in this region the way it is, and it keeps going up, you never know if you have saved enough for retirement. So, those are all of the factors that go into it, at this point.
NNAMDIHere, now, is Joanne, in Bethesda. Joanne, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOANNEHi, Kojo. Thank you. I don't have much time, because I'm literally on my way to the hair salon to get my gray hair dyed. (laugh)
JOANNEWhy? Because, as a woman, you're even -- as men get older, they have a little bit more wisdom, but if you're a woman and you're older, and I'm 62 -- and I still want to work, I like working. I have found that they don't want women as much as men. We don't have any wisdom. We're just old hags. And I can tell you, I do mostly consulting, now, since my 50s because they won't hire especially older women full-time jobs. So, I do consulting in order to do that.
JOANNEAnd that's, you know, tiresome, because you have contracts. They end early or you can't get them renewed, or the company doesn't -- you know, they're moving on and they've decided to hire somebody full-time. But they don’t' want you, they want somebody young. And I'm in the IT business, so my skills are very, very sharp and up-to-date.
JOANNEAnd I have to work, because I put two kids through college, and I had them later in life.
NNAMDI(overlapping) How long do you plan to continue working, Joanne?
JOANNEWell, I like working. so I would like to work as long as possible, as long as I like the work and I like the people. My father works at 86. He has his PhD, and he still works for himself, but he loves working. And he has told me it keeps his brain good.
NNAMDIActive, yes. Thank you. (laugh)
JOANNEHe's very ...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Thank you very much for your call. Sorry to cut you off, but we're working with limited time, here. Richard Johnson, with seniors working longer, we see more generational devise in the workplace than in previous years. What are the implications of boomers working with millennials and generation Z?
JOHNSONRight. So, it can create conflicts. I mean, we've always had multiple generations working together. It's just more common today. I think generations can learn from each other. I don't think it's a big problem in the workforce, but it certainly, I think, having a younger boss can create some challenges. But we are certainly seeing more age groups working together in the workforce than in the past.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Maryann, who says: please stop referring to 65 as retirement age. If you want to receive full Social Security, you may need to work longer. For example, I was born in 1957, so I need to work to 66 years and six months. That is, to some extent, true. Laura Ehle, how has the workplace changed over the years for you?
NNAMDIApart from the drawing, moving onto the digital environment. (laugh) You work with a lot of younger people, now, presumably.
EHLEWell, actually, where I work, people tend to stay, so we do have an aging workforce. Although we do have a number of young people coming in. I enjoy working with them. It kind of livens things up. (laugh) I don't really see any issues at my job, any conflict.
NNAMDISo, you'll probably be there indefinitely.
EHLEYeah, (laugh) yeah.
NNAMDIThat's what it sounds like. Here's John, in Bethesda. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOHNHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. I just have a quick question. I was wondering if your panel thinks about the possibility of compulsory second pillar retirement savings. In Europe, it's very popular. A lot of companies, a lot of countries, for that matter, require that their citizens begin to pay into a second pillar sort of thing as an IRA, or a 401K, in that format. And they even require, as you get older, to contribute more, as you move on.
JOHNSONRight. So, this idea of -- so, right now, our retirement income support system is considered to be three stools. You have Social Security, you have private pensions, you have personal savings. So, the caller, John, is referring to the private pensions, this second pillar of retirement income security. We are seeing -- and that's the area where we see some decline over the past couple of decades, so that employers are less likely to offer these traditionally defined benefits, pensions that provide you a lifetime annuity when you retire. So, now, people are just contributing into retirement accounts. They're not as secure.
JOHNSONWe do see some states moving toward an effort to make these types of 401K plans, IRAs, payroll deductions more common. So, for example, in Maryland, what we see is that there's a new program going into effect, which, if the employer does not offer a 401K plan, they would have to offer the payroll deduction to their employees that would go into sort of a state-managed individual retirement account. So, there is an effort to try to get -- not to force people, but to sort of have the default be that money would be taken out of your paycheck into a retirement savings. And then people could opt out if they wanted to.
NNAMDIHere's Emanuel, in Crofton. Emanuel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
EMANUELHey, Kojo. How you doing? I just got in the car and heard this conversation. And it dawned upon me that just last night in church, we're having revival, this subject was kind of touched on in that we don't value our elderly the way some other cultures do, or even the way we used to, as a culture.
EMANUELAnd the example was given that politicians, way back when, when they used to wear the white wigs, was for the purpose of appearing older and wisdom coming with gray. And now that type thing has diminished, and we lose a lot in our society as a result of it because of, you know, expertise and wisdom that could be passed down if we valued it. So, I just wanted to share that. Thank you.
NNAMDIMight that be changing, Richard Johnson? Several of the individuals running for president and the current occupant of the White House are all technically senior citizens.
JOHNSONYes, yes. You know, one of the -- certainly, the civil rights movement has talked about racism and sexism. And now we have homophobia.
JOHNSONBut ageism is something that still exists, I think. And I think ageism is the one sort of prejudice that is still kind of socially acceptable. And I think we've made some strides in that area, but we still have a long way to go. So, I do think Emanuel is right when he raises that concern.
NNAMDISasha-Ann Simons, what are you working on next for the Affordability Desk, and what's the one story you really want to tell this year during this project?
SIMONSWhat am I not working on? There's so much to talk about here in D.C., but next...
SIMONS...right next up is -- I'm going to explore more of the displacement of families, and particularly immigrant families and immigrant businesses along the Purple Line in Maryland. And you said, what I want to do for this project?
SIMONSSo, I mean, we've got a year, so there's so many things I'll cover, but I know I definitely want to jump on, like, higher education costs, and it just becoming increasingly more difficult to afford even the application process for some people. And also just some whacky living arrangements that people find themselves in just to be able to afford and, you know, make ends meet. You know, rooming with people who, you know, aren't your significant other or people you don't know and, you know, things like that. So...
NNAMDISasha-Ann Simons, she's race and identity reporter for WAMU. Sasha-Ann, always a pleasure.
NNAMDILaura Ehle is a cartographic technician, or a map artist. Laura Ehle, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd Richard Johnson is senior fellow director at the Program on Retirement Policy at the Urban Institute. Richard Johnson, thank you for joining us.
JOHNSONThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIThis segment about delayed retirement was produced by Victoria Chamberlin. And our conversation about the high cost of child care was produced by Maura Currie. Join us tomorrow, when we talk about the D.C. attorney general's lawsuits against Juul, Facebook and other high profile companies. Plus, Step Afrika celebrates 25 years. We're going to talk about their latest production. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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