Boomers Lament Disappearance of Pensions

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More than one of this blog’s readers said a recent article about 401(k)s was hardly revelatory. But it sure generated a lot of comments.

Ed McGrath wrote this about “Retirees with Pensions Slower to Spend 401(k):” “Well thank you for this Caption Obvious.”

Perhaps the article struck a nerve because baby boomers are the generation who mostly lost out on pensions. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. workers born in the 1920s through the 1940s – many of them parents of boomers – had pensions. But a measly 6 percent of boomers from the tail end of the wave have them.

Millennials and members of Generation Z usually wouldn’t even consider pensions in their retirement plans. But boomers at one time might’ve hoped or even expected to enjoy a retirement similar to their pensioned parents.

“I am a single woman, a former nurse, and not one job offered me a pension,” said Jennifer Lee, who is 67. “I am relying on my savings and Social Security as well as the equity in my home.” Lee expressed chagrin that a 60-year-old cousin – a rare boomer with a pension – has already “mailed in his retirement papers.”

Gumball MachineSeveral readers pointed out problems with a U.S. retirement system that increasingly relies on savings – leaving retirees to figure out how much to withdraw every year – as monthly pension checks have disappeared. Ken Pidock, quoting a financial journalist, said 401(k)s lack the reliability of pensions: “Forcing people of modest means to depend on the stock market for income to pay bills after they stop working is madness.”

Paul Brustowicz, a former insurance company employee in his late 70s, feels lucky to have the security that comes with a pension, along with his Social Security and some IRA funds he converted to an annuity. “The steady monthly income lets my wife rest easy at night,” he said.

But another reader, Brian Jarvis, has a different perspective on the generational pension divide. “Yes, my father had a traditional pension that I don’t have,” he said. But Jarvis and his wife built up an ample nest egg “that my parents couldn’t have dreamed of,” he said. “We’ll be in good shape for quite a while – the rest of our lives – even without our parents’ type of pensions.”

Unfortunately, not everyone is as prepared as Jarvis. About half of U.S. households aren’t saving enough to retire at the traditional age of 65, which puts them at risk of suffering a drop in their standard of living when they quit working and the paychecks stop.

Further, some boomers may forget to plan for the financial impact of paying taxes on their traditional 401(k) and IRA withdrawals, starting at either age 70 or 72 – the rules changed in 2019. The withdrawals are part of the IRS’ requirement that retirees pay taxes on a predetermined percentage of their assets each year.

“If you have large traditional IRAs, you will be clobbered by taxes starting at 72,” warned a reader named Joel.

Geoffrey Hewitt is concerned about the steep cost of U.S. health care, which puts another strain on retirement savings. Health insurance is also tied to the pension issue, because retirees who were members of public or private sector unions often get health insurance along with their pensions, though these plans are also becoming more rare.

Michael Waggoner offers practical advice to people who want their modest savings to last: annuitize some of that 401(k). An annuity, he said, “provide[s] investment security” and “slows winding down the other assets.”

To read the study on which this article is based, see “Can the Drawdown Patterns of Earlier Cohorts Help Predict Boomers’ Behavior?” by Robert Siliciano and Gal Wettstein.

The research reported herein was derived in whole or in part from research activities performed pursuant to a grant from the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) funded as part of the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.  The opinions and conclusions expressed are solely those of the authors and do not represent the opinions or policy of SSA, any agency of the federal government, or Boston College.  Neither the United States Government nor any agency thereof, nor any of their employees, make any warranty, express or implied, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of the contents of this report.  Reference herein to any specific commercial product, process or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise does not necessarily constitute or imply endorsement, recommendation or favoring by the United States Government or any agency thereof.

1 comment
David Fleiss

“The withdrawals are part of the IRS’ requirement that retirees pay taxes on a predetermined percentage of their assets each year.”

I’m 99.99% certain that the taxes are required by Congress, not the IRS. The IRS enforces the tax laws that Congress passes. It doesn’t have its own authority to require the payment of taxes.

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