Gen X Is Dazed And Confused When It Comes to Retirement

Retirement isn't looking as rosy for Generation X. Many fortysomethings lag behind in retirement savings with many still trying to pay off student loans, while simultaneously juggling both college costs for their own children and caring for aging parents.

Pew Charitable Trusts' 2014 report "A New Financial Reality: The Balance Sheets and Economic Mobility of Generation X" noted that while Gen X-ers may make more money than their parents, only one-third have more money set aside for retirement. The report illuminated reasons such as the fact that Gen X has more debt than previous generations and the fact that the median Gen X-er owed almost six times more than his parents did when they were the same age.

"This is the generation I lose sleep over," says Catherine Collinson, president of the Transamerica Institute and author of Retirement Throughout the Ages: Expectations and Preparations of American Workers. "People in their 40s represent the critical mass, and this is the group that should be building their retirement, but we see them as being financially frazzled but still focused."

In her report, Collinson says fortysomethings are smashed between work, kids and parents after still trying to recover from the Great Recession.

She found only 10% feel "very" confident they will be able to fully retire with a comfortable lifestyle and 22% have made paying off credit card or consumer debt as being a major priority. Collinson and her team were encouraged that 82% of those who are offered a 401(k) or similar plan were participating and contributing the median amount (7%) of their annual pay. Unfortunately, 24% have taken a loan or early withdrawal against that savings, and 61% believe they will still be working past age 65 or have no plans to retire.

"Gen X-ers are taking care of everyone else before their need to retire," Collinson says. "Plus they are still dealing with the aftershocks from the recession--an impact that should not be underestimated."

The takeaway is make time to focus on retirement and get on track, because it's not over for Gen X. "You still have time to make a big difference on how much you can save so don't give up if you think you are too far behind," Collinson says.

More Than Saving Money

The disillusionment among many savers is retirement planning. Saving for retirement means squirreling away money to use for living expenses once you no longer work, but it also means planning for a new life.

Diane Oakley, executive director for the National Institute on Retirement Security, says all savers, regardless of age, miss a few critical aspects of retirement. "During retirement you are covered by Medicare, but there are gaps -- huge gaps -- in coverage that people may not be aware of or are factoring," she explains. "To avoid paying out of pocket for medical expenses, you may need to think about purchasing insurance. However, unlike when you purchase insurance through your employer, you don't get it on a pretax basis. The harsh reality is the amount the average person should set aside for health care is around $250,000. Not many workers think about that and unfortunately most are nowhere close to having that kind of money in their retirement account."

Oakley points out that workers should also consider long term care. "In the past, before more women were in the workforce, an aging parent could receive care from a family member, typically the woman," she says. "However, many Gen X women are in the workforce and are not available to take care of an elderly parent, plus generations that follow will have an even stronger presence in the workforce. Who is going to care for you should there be no family member to help?"

She says long term care solutions allow for the aging individual to remain and be cared for at home, but at a price. "No one wants to talk or think about this, but long-term care is one reality that everyone should be considering, but many don't," she says.

Additionally, Social Security is a curious topic amongst Gen X and younger generations, as many don't see the system playing a considerable roll in financial support.

"Workers should think of Social Security as a foundation," explains William B.J. Jarrett, spokesperson from the Social Security Administration. "To enjoy a comfortable retirement, most people need to save and invest throughout their working lives. On average, Social Security retirement benefits replace 40% of pre-retirement earnings."

Jarrett notes rumblings about how some of Social Security's rules about claiming benefits have changed. "The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, passed by Congress last November, made several changes to the Social Security Act and closed two complex loopholes that were used primarily by married couples to receive higher benefits than intended," he says. "Closing these loopholes helps to restore fairness and strengthens Social Security's long-term financing."

Where To Start

"Playing with retirement calculators doesn't sound like a lot of fun, but it's a great place to start," Collinson says. "One way to make retirement planning a little more engaging and interesting is to create your retirement bucket list. What do you want to accomplish or do when you retire--is it travel or a new adventure? Identifying what inspires or excites you may be the perfect way to get the ball rolling."

Collinson says savers should be specific about what their personal retirement will resemble. In her study, respondents said they would need $1 million to feel financially comfortable when they retire. "The $1 million comment is a very personal question and people are guessing with regard to how much they need," she says. "While having a ballpark is not a bad idea, savers need to consider their lifestyle, cost of living in their specific area and that bucket list. Some people may end up needing less than that $1 million median benchmark, others will need more. But using the retirement calculators to be more specific and have an better picture of need is vital to creating a comfortable retirement scenario."

Oakley adds that all savers should pay themselves first. "Employers and some states are offering some type of payroll related savings program, which automatically sweeps savings into a retirement account," she remarks. "If you don't pay yourself first and make sure you save on an ongoing basis, there won't be anything left over to put into your retirement account at the end of the month, making preparations a challenge."

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