As Slump Drags On, Retirement Dreams Slip Away

Richard Rudy, 62 i i

Richard Rudy, 62, is among the oldest students in his "Total Safety Performance" class. It's one of the requirements for his associate's degree in construction management technology. Adam Hochberg/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Adam Hochberg/NPR
Richard Rudy, 62

Richard Rudy, 62, is among the oldest students in his "Total Safety Performance" class. It's one of the requirements for his associate's degree in construction management technology.

Adam Hochberg/NPR
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Alyson Hurt/NPR
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Our weeklong series on All Things Considered began on June 1 and includes:

  • An examination of the 401(k) model
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The turbulent economy is changing people's attitudes about retirement. Among those most affected are people who are near retirement age, but not quite there yet.

As the stock market and the job market have headed south, some people, such as 62-year-old Richard Rudy, have had to delay retirement.

This is the time of his life when Rudy thought he'd be able to start taking things a little easier. After working for decades as a salesman and product representative, Rudy planned to be moving toward retirement now. Instead, he's back in school.

Rudy's working toward an associate's degree in construction management technology. He's taking courses at Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh, N.C.

Rudy is taking classes here because his dreams of retiring at age 65 began slipping away as the economy faltered. He lost his job and began burning through his savings to meet his living expenses. The value of his retirement accounts plummeted, and Rudy says he realized he'd need to keep working much longer.

"Never in my wildest thoughts did I believe I would be in school at 62," he says. "But I had, not what you could call the perfect storm, but I certainly had an adequate squall."

Those storm clouds in Rudy's financial life began forming about five years ago. That's when things started to slow down in the construction industry, and demand fell for the countertops and other building products he sold. His commissions and bonuses began to drop, then finally — this past September — his job was eliminated entirely. The timing was tough for Rudy, who found himself looking for work when he hoped to be easing into retirement.

"I thought at this age I would be scaling back my 60-hour workweeks and beginning to develop some of my outside interests," he says. "I enjoy kayaking. I love to travel. I've not had the opportunity to see Paris. I thought at this point that I could do some of those things."

For most of his working life, Rudy was on track to fulfill his retirement goals. He had a decent income — as much as $80,000 in good years. He lived frugally, saving about 15 percent of what he earned. And he avoided long-term debt. But, after eight months without a job, he's been drawing down his savings. Meanwhile, his retirement investments — once worth about $300,000 — have plummeted about 50 percent.

"When I met with the gentleman that looks after some of that little bit of money for me, there's a littler little bit than there was three months ago, and a lot less than there was six months ago," he says. "I could have taken the money instead of investing it; I could have put it in a mattress, and I'd have just as much money today. Maybe even more."

Rudy says he needs about half a million dollars to feel comfortable going into retirement. Had he kept his job a few more years and had his investments continued to grow, he's confident he would have saved that much by the time he turned 65. Instead, with his net worth sliding backward, he needs to extend his career.

After seeing the market for sales jobs dry up, Rudy wants his construction management degree so he can find work as a project engineer at job sites.

"These are the jobs that can't be outsourced. The industry may have its ups and downs, but things will always be built, things will always need to be maintained. And I'll be well-positioned when the industry begins to recover," he says.

A study earlier this year suggested that many 60-somethings are finding themselves in a position similar to Rudy's. The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants surveyed clients approaching retirement age and found that more than one-third has decided to keep working because of the economy. In announcing the results, the institute concluded that "70 is the new 65."

But in Rudy's case, even that may be an understatement. To replenish his retirement nest egg, he says he may have to keep working until he's 75.

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