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Millions of baby boomers are getting caught in the country’s broken retirement system

The Washington Post spoke to six Americans who have come to the end of their work lives with no financial cushion, no nest egg. The coronavirus pandemic has scrambled many Americans’ financial futures, but some baby boomers have found surprising ways to cope with the downturn in the economy.

By Will Englund

May 4, 2020 at 11:12 AM EDT

They went to work every day and built a life for themselves, put money away in a savings plan and paid their taxes. And then they got divorced or hurt on the job or sick or widowed or just plain unlucky — and found themselves in the same boat as millions of Americans who are now approaching retirement with most of the financial props knocked out from under them.

As the big bulge of baby boomers head into old age, as many as half are coming face-to-face with a new American economic reality: Retirement means a descent into relative hard times, because the systems put in place when this generation was just entering its peak earning years have failed.

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And one way or another the whole country will feel the consequences.

We talked to six Americans who have come to the end of their work lives with no financial cushion, no nest egg. The oldest is 74, the youngest 57: just about the exact span of the baby-boom generation. They are liberal and conservative, rural and urban, blue collar and white.

The coronavirus pandemic has scrambled the lives of these six boomers just as it has everyone else’s, though with no savings to worry about at least it hasn’t directly hurt them financially. Some have hunkered down, as best they can in sometimes tight spaces. For others, the pandemic has brought a surprising twist to their lives.

For others of their generation who have lost their jobs in the coronavirus shutdown, the odds against regaining employment, and being able to keep saving, have grown longer and longer.

None of these stories is an outlier. Half of American families in the 56-to-61 age bracket had less than $21,000 in retirement savings in 2016, according to a longitudinal study by the Economic Policy Institute that used the most recent available figures. A less formal survey last year found that little had changed. Forty percent of Americans over the age of 60 who are no longer working full-time rely solely on Social Security for their income — the median annual benefit is about $17,000.

Every day, 10,000 Americans reach the age of 65. (In 2024, that number will crest at about 12,000 a day.) And every year, fewer and fewer of them have traditional employer-sponsored pensions to support them. The system that was supposed to provide for them is shot through with holes.

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“We’ve probably peaked in terms of retirement security — and it’s not great,” said Monique Morrisey, of the Economic Policy Institute. “And now it’s all downhill. Unless something changes, we’re going to start seeing much more hardship.”

Thirty million Americans have applied for unemployment benefits since the pandemic struck. But for laid-off workers in their 50s and 60s — and 70s — finding employment again will be tough.

“How many older workers are going to permanently lose their jobs and retire earlier than they planned?” Morrisey asked. The ranks of those drawing down what savings they now have are certain to grow.

The impact will reach far beyond the more than 70 million living members of the baby-boom generation. It will affect everything from employment patterns to the price of real estate. With life spans lengthening, in concert with medical bills, financially strapped baby boomers entering the years of serious physical decline will put an immense burden down the road on Medicaid and on their families.

“Their children are looking around and wondering what this means for them,” said Jan Mutchler, at University of Massachusetts at Boston.

“It will be felt down the family chain,” said Alicia Munnell, a professor of management sciences at Boston College. "People are going to be anxious. There’s going to be some intergenerational ripple.”

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‘We were so stupid’

By some comparisons, Nancy Koch, a 70-year-old retired psychiatric nurse, counts herself lucky. She had some good jobs over the years. She’s married — for the third time, after two divorces, each of which involved lawyers, the need to set up new households, and a general drain on savings. Her husband, Terry Koch, 69, was a technical writer who worked most recently for a company that makes labels, though his real love is the piano. He’s the improviser; she’s the organizer. She has recovered better than expected from a health scare a decade ago, when back surgery led to unexpected complications. They have an apartment in West Allis, Wis., in a senior living complex that is subsidized through the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit. What they don’t have is any money.

“We were completely not prepared,” she said, for the life they are now living.

A sizable minority of Americans have struggled all their lives with low incomes. But now, millions more who were solidly middle class — like the Kochs — are looking at a financial fall. Half of Americans are at risk of not being able to maintain their standard of living in retirement, according to a Boston College study that was completed before the pandemic hit and potentially made the prospects even worse.

Dozens of factors have contributed to this, most having to do with lack of access to retirement savings plans, unexpected large financial hits, layoffs and declines in health. A study at Stanford University found the baby boomers have, in real terms, about 20 percent less in savings, 20 percent lower household wealth and 100 percent more debt than the generation born during World War II.

Terry and Nancy Koch (pronounced “Cook”) are part of that 40 percent of retired Americans who have Social Security as their only income. Between them, it comes to about $2,500 a month. Rent for their subsidized two-bedroom apartment, across the street from an abandoned bowling alley, is $975, plus a $20 pet fee for their cat Sam. The rent is about to go up by $30. Premiums for Medicare and supplemental insurance policies cost about $450 a month for the two of them. Beyond Social Security, their retirement savings plans are — totally tapped out. They have no cushion, no nest egg.

Although they are above the official poverty line, their monthly income falls $750 short of the amount that “constitutes adequacy as opposed to destitution” for Milwaukee county, said Mutchler, whose team at the Center for Social and Demographic Research on Aging has calculated an “Elder Index” for every county in the nation.

West Allis, just outside Milwaukee, was once the headquarters of the Allis-Chalmers Co., which manufactured industrial machinery, employed 31,000 unionized workers in Wisconsin and elsewhere, supported a solid standard of living for its workers for nearly eight decades, and paid them pensions when they retired. That’s gone.

The Kochs moved there from the leafy suburb of Bay View because of the affordable rent. They have no friends there. Nancy’s adult son lives alone north of Milwaukee.

In Terry Koch’s view, part of the reason they have no money is rooted in the changes that have swept the country, starting with the culture of their own generation, a legacy of the 1960s.

It was perhaps the first generation to start thinking that we didn’t want to just get jobs to plug in to get our pensions and to, you know, to be a--holes when we were 70 and beat up our kids and then retire and go to Hawaii or something,” he said. “We were a people who said we kind of like to have job satisfaction up front. And so we didn’t think about the long run of things. To not be thinking about the future, to be more of a Zen thing, you know we live today. And it wasn’t pure hedonism. There was some purity. And we’re still very much that way. I would rather be happy today than miserable 25 years from now. And so I made choices based on that rather than on the economics, which, you know, one could argue fairly successfully that I made some pretty stupid decisions.”

His wife Nancy said, laughing, “Yeah, we were so stupid.”

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Music is what makes him happy, Terry Koch said. “It’s a heck of a lot more important than making good labels for potato chip bags for 40 years.”

The Kochs met when they both worked at a bank — one of those small local banks that formerly kept the economy going in cities and towns across America. She was the daughter of a Motorola vice president — “money driven,” is how she described him, a man who’d fight with her mother and then buy her a new car, or fur coat. Nancy was a mother and already on her first divorce by the time she was 20. Terry moved around a lot as a boy; he didn’t know his father. Nancy said he was a “juvenile delinquent,” then burst out laughing. “Yeah, I was a long-haired creep,” he countered, deadpan.

Nancy Koch’s second husband was a law student. They couldn’t save any money while he was paying tuition. As soon as he graduated they split.

In 1983, Nancy and Terry married. By the end of that decade the bank had gone south, so both these 40-something college dropouts decided to go back and get their degrees. Student loans made it possible. Nancy studied nursing. Terry studied English and history but soon drifted into computer work.

After college he got a job at Blue Cross, she landed an entry-level position at a Milwaukee hospital. She was 47. Three years later, he got a well-paying position as a writer for a defense subcontractor in Providence, R.I. For the next seven years, Nancy worked as a nurse at a series of community health centers around Rhode Island. She loved the work, unconditionally. The pay wasn’t bad — about $50,000 — but the benefits were scanty. Terry wasn’t so happy: The Pentagon contract was canceled, and then the bursting of the tech bubble made it impossible to find similar full-time work.

“All my contacts were saying, you know, just ride it out, just ride it out, just ride it out. And eventually I stopped riding,” Terry Koch said. “And then all the people that I had as contacts lost their jobs.”

He took one temporary job after another. By 2007, Nancy Koch had wrecked her back: nursing is a physical profession. They felt they couldn’t afford to stay in New England, so they moved back to Wisconsin, where Nancy had a series of operations on her hip, back and neck.

Terry and Nancy Koch once had a retirement account, though today they can’t agree as to whether it had $10,000 or $20,000 in it. No matter; they cashed it in, paying taxes and the early-withdrawal penalty, and now it’s about gone.

He found a temp job in customer service for a company that made labels. Five years later he was still working there, still a temp.

“We never saved a lot of money,” Nancy Koch said