More Savings, More Debt, More Questions

New survey data from the Transamerica Institute and the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies underscores the contradictory impacts the coronavirus pandemic has had on Americans’ financial health.

As CEO and president of the Transamerica Institute and the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies (TCRS), Catherine Collinson oversees all research and outreach initiatives for the nonprofit organizations, including the annual Transamerica Retirement Survey, just published in its 21st edition.

As Collinson tells PLANADVISER, the title of the new edition—“Living in the COVID-19 Pandemic: The Health, Finances and Retirement Prospects of Four Generations”—reveals a lot about the evolving focus of the annual survey.

“Workers are weathering a public health crisis and contending with fears about the virus and vaccinations, concerns for family and friends, employment impacts, and financial setbacks,” Collinson says. “With the immediacy of these concerns and uncertainty about the future, it is surprising that their preparations for retirement, an abstract and distant time for many, have not been altogether forgotten. Nevertheless, many are at risk of not achieving a financially secure retirement, unless action is taken by policymakers, employers and workers.”

The survey data shows that, despite six in 10 workers having adjusted their financial behaviors due to pandemic-related financial strain, 82% are saving for retirement. About a third report having reduced day-to-day expenses, while nearly a quarter say they have dipped into savings accounts to meet spending needs. Some 17% have accumulated new credit card debt, a little more than the 14% who have reduced or stopped contributions to retirement accounts.

Collinson points out that Millennials (71%), members of Generation Z (69%) and members of Generation X (59%) are more likely than Baby Boomers (40%) to have made any of these financial adjustments. For all generations, 43% of workers experienced one or more negative impacts to their employment, including reduced hours, reduced salaries, furloughs, layoffs and early retirement. Except for early retirements, Gen Z is more likely to have been negatively impacted in these ways than Millennials, Gen Xers and Baby Boomers.

Other key data shows almost one in four workers are serving as caregivers. Millennials (30%) and Gen X (26%) are more likely than Gen Z and Baby Boomers (18% and 12%, respectively) to be providing care.

Collinson notes that workers are broadly committed to saving for retirement, even in the face of these challenges. However, few say they are “very confident” about meeting their long-term goals, which Collinson says is understandable and addressable.

“Given the magnitude of challenges workers have faced during the pandemic, it is remarkable that they have maintained focus on their future retirement,” she says, again citing the findings that show 82% of workers are saving for retirement through employer-sponsored plans, such as a 401(k) or similar plan, and/or outside the workplace. “It is very encouraging that Generation Z started saving at age 19 and Millennials at age 25, at the median. This compares with Generation X, at age 30, and Baby Boomers, at age 35.”

Collinson says she worries that, even with a strong commitment to savings, many workers can expect to face financial hardships in retirement. According to the survey, the estimated median total household retirement savings among all workers is $93,000. Baby Boomer workers have the most retirement savings, at $202,000, compared with Generation X ($107,000), Millennials ($68,000), and Generation Z ($26,000). Troublingly, she adds, 49% of workers expect to work past age 65 or do not plan to retire, an expectation that is higher among older workers, while only 24% are “very confident” that they will be able to fully retire with a comfortable lifestyle.

Reflecting on a mixed bag of findings, Collinson says workers should be encouraged to improve their fiscal health by creating a financial plan and gaining a full understanding of their situation—especially if their outlook is challenging.

“Preparing a budget, prioritizing expenses, setting short- and long-term goals, learning about investing and developing a retirement strategy are important steps,” she says. “Employers, on the other hand, can enhance their retirement, health and welfare benefits offerings.”

Employers can also consider enhancing their general business practices, Collinson suggests, for example by offering employees greater work-life balance. This can help employers attract and retain talent in an increasingly competitive market.

Speaking to her peers in the financial services industry, Collinson says they also have a big role to play, both by meeting high professional/ethical standards but also by helping to build on recent legislative successes by encouraging further changes.

“Policymakers can implement additional reforms that expand retirement plan coverage, increase incentives for employers to offer plans and facilitate retirement savings,” she concludes. “Workers’ ability to achieve a secure retirement ultimately depends on access to meaningful employment throughout their lives, the availability of retirement and health and welfare benefits, and the preservation of safety nets such as Social Security and Medicare. As we emerge from the pandemic, we have an unprecedented opportunity to strengthen the fabric of our retirement system—including how we live, work, retire and age with dignity.”