Here’s a quick quiz – which would you rather do: 1) Live in poverty or 2) Live with your spouse? A lot of baby boomers seem to be choosing (1), although they may not actually know it. Trouble is, boomers are ending their marriages in droves, and splitting up what are really very inadequate retirement assets. So just when it seemed that the baby boomers could not make the dream of retirement even more elusive, they have apparently found a way to do so.
The latest figures on divorce come from a study from Bowling Green University. According to a study by researchers Susan Brown and I-Fen Lin, the actual rate of divorce for those aged fifty and over has doubled since 1990. In 1990, less than 1 in 10 people aged 50 and over were divorced; by 2009, that figure had hit 1 in 4. An earlier study by the two also found that one-third of American baby boomers were unmarried – and that unmarried boomers are more financially vulnerable.
Let’s just review exactly where baby boomer finances are right now.
The boomers – born between 1946 and 1966, more or less although you can argue that the boom actually ended a year or two earlier than that – have had some bad luck in terms of wealth accumulation. Earlier boomers got hit by the recessions of the 80s and 90s partway through their careers, and are reeling from the latest, never-ending recession. Later boomers started their careers during the morass of the 1980s and had a problem ever catching up.
Income accumulation has been hard. According to a just-released study by the U.S. Federal Reserve, in inflation-adjusted terms median before-tax family incomes for families headed by someone aged 55 to 64 (basically baby boomers) fell from $57,200 in 2007 to $55,100 in 2010, a decline of 3.8 percent. In 2007, 58 percent of those families were managing to save money; by 2010, that had fallen to 51 percent.
On top of the income side of that the wealth side of the equation has not really worked out for them either. According to the Federal Reserve Study, U.S. households with a head aged 55 to 64 saw their net worth (assets less liabilities) fall from a median of $266,200 in 2007 to $179,400 by 2010. That is a staggering decline of 48 percent, from an already-modest level of assets.
To be fair, younger generations did even worse in terms of their financial situation over those years, but younger generations have more time to catch up before retirement. For the boomers, it’s tick-tock.
The data for Canada is not available with the same demographic split, and it is true that the gyrations in the economy have not been as bad in Canada as in the United States. Then again, if you live in Canada and feel smug about any of that, better check your liabilities. As the Bank of Canada has been wont to tell Canadians, they are spending too much. As of the first quarter of 2012, the ratio of total consumer debt to personal disposable income was 152.7 percent, as compared to 113 percent a decade earlier.
It is hard to say definitively where all of this is going to lead the boomers in retirement, but really the tea leaves are not that hard to read. A study done a couple of years ago by economists Dean Bakers and David Rosnick for the U.S. Center for Economic and Policy Research looked at the collapse of the U.S. housing bubble and destruction of wealth, and used an economic model to project what it would mean for baby boomer retirements. Conclusion? Most baby boomers were going to be entirely dependent on their Social Security income once they stopped working.
So if all that isn’t bad enough, people are splitting up those assets that they do have at a clip that they never have before. What is worse than inadequate retirement savings? Inadequate retirement savings divided by two.
Far be it for me to say that anyone should stay together because of the money, and people are going to make individual choices based on their individual situations. And true, poverty may be a harsh word for what might really just be the less-dramatic ‘a lot less income than I had hoped’.
As a society though, we had better be prepared for a large generation of retirees who may be a lot more dependent on government support than anyone had expected.