Are the baby boomers making adequate preparations for retirement? In part, the answer depends on what is meant by “adequate.” One definition is to have enough resources to maintain preretirement living standards in retirement. A rule of thumb often used by financial planners is that retirees should be able to meet this goal by replacing 60-80 percent of preretirement income. Retired households can maintain their preretirement standard of living with less income because they have more leisure time, fewer household members, and lower expenses.
A second big question is how to measure how well baby boomers are preparing for retirement. Studies that focus only on personal saving put aside for retirement yield bleak conclusions.
A third issue—crucial but as yet little explored—is which baby boomers are not providing adequately for retirement and how big the gap is between what they have and what they should have. Some boomers are doing extremely well, others quite poorly.
The uncertain prospects for the baby boomers in retirement are particularly troubling because, as a society, we as yet understand little about the dynamics of retirement. Only one or two generations of Americans have had lengthy retirements, and the crucial retirement issues—health care, asset markets, Social Security, life span—keep changing rapidly, making long-term predictions even harder.
Whether the boomers and the previous generation will have similar experiences from middle age to retirement is an open—and still evolving—question. The earlier generation benefited from the growth of Social Security and housing values in the 1970s. But the boomers have gained from the dramatic rise in the stock market since the early 1980s, from smaller household size, which reduces living expenses, and from higher employment rates for women, which will raise their pension coverage. In addition, boomers are more likely to be in white-collar work and so should expect earnings to peak later in life and be able to work longer if they wish.
Finally, boomers may not be content with the living standard of today’s retirees. They may aim instead for retirement living standards more comparable to those of their own working years.
Adequacy rates rise with education and income. Within the baby boom generation, adequacy rates generally decline somewhat with age. They are higher for boomers with pensions than for those without, either because pensions raise households’ overall wealth or because people more oriented toward saving and thinking about retirement are also more likely to have jobs with pensions.
Thus, the glass can be viewed as half full or half empty. When housing equity is ignored, the typical household seems to be barely saving adequately or just missing. When housing is included, over two-thirds of households appear to have more than the minimum needed, given their age and other factors. Roughly speaking, a third of the sample is doing well by any measure, a third is doing poorly by any measure, and the middle third is (or may be) just hanging in there. Both of the following statements are equally true. Up to two-thirds of the households are now saving at least as much as they should be. And two-thirds are “at risk” in that any deterioration in their situation could make it impossible for them to maintain their living standards in retirement.
The boomers’ prospects are also complicated by uncertainty in other areas: retirement patterns, life spans, home values, asset markets, health care costs, and the economy itself.
Of workers eligible for a pension, 47 percent continue to work after leaving their career job. If people continue to work even after retirement, they will be better able to support living standards in retirement.
The retirement prospects for the baby boomers are uncertain. One issue is what policymakers and boomers themselves will accept as a reasonable goal for retirement living. More thought needs to be given as to how to assess living standards when, as a matter of biology, retirees face declining health. In addition, they typically have more leisure time and can literally substitute time for money. A second source of uncertainty is the boomers themselves. Whatever imponderables the economy as a whole may offer, baby boomers can improve their retirement prospects by saving more—that is, by reducing their current living standards.