The Miami Herald

Work's not done for baby boomers who've lost retirement savings

This is the first in an occasional series of stories examining issues facing America's 78 million baby boomers, a generation that has long been an engine of change.

The recession is reshuffling retirement plans for baby boomers -- a demographic tsunami, accustomed to setting the agenda, that finds itself scrambling as the oldest boomers turn 64.

Depleted savings, sagging home values and high unemployment that lingers like a stubborn backache are forcing a generation that wanted to change the world to confront the fact that the world -- or at least the struggling economy -- may change them.

``Honestly, I'll have to work until they dig the hole,'' says Mike Howard, 49, a Davie auto mechanic who had planned to semi-retire at 60 but watched stock-market losses and a family crisis wipe out half of his savings.

``We were sitting on top of the world,'' says Howard, who owns A&S Auto Services with his wife, Paula. ``Now I'm getting customers who are losing their jobs and asking me to give them a break on their car service. It's hit everybody.''

In the past five years, boomers ages 46 to 54 have seen their average net worth drop 45 percent, from $172,400 to $94,200, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, and those 55 to 64 have seen their worth cut nearly in half, from $315,400 to $159,800. With their working days numbered, many realize they can't recoup.

``This has been a jolt to the psyche,'' says Sandra Timmerman, director of MetLife's Mature Market Institute. ``Boomers are realizing . . . that it's time to get real about the new reality.''

And whether that means delaying retirement, learning new skills or changing careers altogether, the staying-alive strategies of boomers -- the largest segment of the American workforce at 38 percent -- leave younger workers wondering when they'll get to move up the ladder.

More than 70 percent of workers 60 or older surveyed by Careerbuilder.com earlier this year said they were putting off retirement -- half of them to hang on to health benefits.

Sergia Dominguez, 53, of Miami Gardens, a personnel-services interviewer for Miami-Dade County, did the math last month and concluded that she can't afford to retire as planned at 62: Her savings are insufficient to supplement her pension, and insuring herself until she qualifies for Medicare at 65 seems out of the question.

``You have to sacrifice a little to get where you're going,'' says Dominguez, who is spending less on travel and restaurant meals, saving more and planning to work until 65. ``I want to have a better future, and this is what it takes.''

Having a realistic plan -- and a pension -- puts Dominguez ahead of the game: Only 53 percent of workers 55 and older have even tried to calculate how much they need for retirement, according to a 2010 survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, and 29 percent report less than $10,000 in savings and investments. It's little wonder that just 13 percent said they were confident they had enough to live comfortably in retirement.

``This recession has highlighted the fact that the promise of retiring at 65 and living the life of leisure has started to erode,'' says Deborah Russell, director of workplace aging at AARP.

A STRUGGLE TO WORK

Yet continuing to work -- at least full-time in a job of their choosing -- is an option more than four million aging boomers may have lost in the recession. The unemployment rate among 60- to 64-year-olds increased 2 ½-fold between February 2006 and February 2010, from 2.9 percent to 7.4 percent. While that's less than the 9.7 percent overall unemployment rate, it represents a particularly stubborn joblessness: Workers 55 and older are remaining unemployed for an average of 36 weeks compared with 29 weeks for all workers.

Trish Mozealous, 51, knows better than most that doing without a paycheck for months can be devastating, even if you have a financial cushion. She was laid off in September 2007 from a six-figure job as a sales representative for a wholesale mortgage lender. Months later, her husband, who works at a lighting store, had his hours cut. Though she managed to land a few temp jobs, the family ate through its savings and dipped into his 401(k).

``We live paycheck to paycheck, and we pray that we stay healthy and strong to work until we die,'' Mozealous says with a rueful laugh.

She recently was hired as a sales rep for an alarm company, but her income, from commissions, is about 40 percent of what she once made.

Struggling to make their mortgage payment, the Mozealouses have applied for a loan modification. Their four-bedroom South Miami-Dade house is worth less than half what they paid for it four years ago, but it at least has provided refuge for her daughter's family, whose condo was foreclosed upon after Mozealous' son-in-law lost his job as a mechanic at an auto dealership.

Nevertheless, she is optimistic.

``I believe things are going to get better,'' she says. ``Every month, I do a little better at my job.''

Mozealous remained in sales, though in a different industry, but the recession has pushed other boomers to learn new skills or change careers. Older workers seeking to learn new technology or enter more promising fields helped give the University of Miami's division of continuing and international education its biggest registration ever last year, says marketing director Paul Vrooman.

Miami Dade College administrators have also noticed a boomer enrollment bump, particularly in teacher certification, real-estate and healthcare programs.

One of those new students is Ana Velasco, 50, who searched to no avail for another pharmaceutical sales job after Pfizer laid her off last April. She has a master's degree in education but had long been attracted to healthcare, so in January she enrolled in MDC's nursing program.

``It was hard going back to school after so many years,'' Velasco says. ``But I'm loving every minute of it. I'm confident about getting a job, and being around younger people has revitalized me.''

EFFECT ON YOUNG

Will boomer retirement delays thwart younger workers' ambitions and breed intergenerational conflict? That's far from clear. Size matters, after all, and Gen-X -- roughly 30- to 45-year-olds -- produced about 10 million fewer workers than the baby boom. (The figures -- 49 million vs. 59 million -- include both employed and unemployed members of the civilian workforce.)

In fact, a new study by the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University predicts that in the next five to eight years, as the economy revives and the oldest boomers begin retiring en masse, older workers who remain in the labor force will be in demand to fill at least five million job vacancies.

``With nearly 10 percent of the American labor force unemployed and another 7 percent so discouraged by their job prospects that they have either dropped out of the labor force altogether or are working at part-time jobs when they would prefer full-time employment, it may come as something of a surprise that within less than a decade, the United States may face exactly the opposite problem -- not enough workers to fill expected job openings,'' the study's authors write.

Other experts say the notion of generational warfare in the workplace is overblown.

``The idea of older workers holding on and not allowing younger ones to move up doesn't bear out in a normal economy,'' says Alicia H. Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

SOMETHING TO DO

Of course, not every boomer dreams of hanging it up at 65. In the Careerbuilder.com survey, 24 percent of workers 60 and older said they planned to stay on the job because they fear boredom and another 15 percent because they want to feel needed.

``Work provides people with more than just a paycheck,'' says MDC psychology professor Manny Garcia, a boomer himself at 45. ``A job provides social connectedness and purpose. We're living longer, and people will be staying in the workforce longer.''

At 52, John Murillo, territory manager for a surgical device company, has no intention of retiring, though he could afford to. He says he loves his job too much.

``I just can't see myself retired,'' he says. ``What would I do? Open my own coffee shop or something? I'm going to keep on doing it until my body gives out.''




© 2010 Miami Herald Media Company. All Rights Reserved.
http://www.miamiherald.com