Retirement Plans Shrink as Economy Falters Older baby boomers are approaching retirement age, but many aren't calling it quits. For some, it's a matter of choice. But for others, the faltering U.S. economy has pinched their sources for retirement income.
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Retirement Plans Shrink as Economy Falters

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Retirement Plans Shrink as Economy Falters

Retirement Plans Shrink as Economy Falters

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The voters who go to the polls in Indiana tomorrow are among many who are thinking about their economic future. And for many, that future includes a lot more work than they may have expected. More and more older workers put off retirement. For some, this is a matter of choice, and for others, the shaky economy with its uncertain housing market and shrinking returns on retirement funds cuts back their options.

NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY: This year is supposed to be the beginning of the silver tsunami. That's because the first wave of the 78 million people in the baby boomer generation can start collecting Social Security benefits. Roy Del Rio, who is 62, says he's working fewer hours as a project manager consultant. But he's not ready to retire.

Mr. ROY DEL RIO (Project Manager Consultant): I always say, you know, when I retire, I'll die. That's about when I'll retire. And the economy now, you know, you think you have enough, but you don't. It's just, it's just - you go through it, and the way gas prices and everything else are going, and plus I get - it's just too boring for me to just sit around anyway.

CORLEY: Del Rio lives in Munster, Indiana. The town's tidy lawns, neat one-story mostly brick homes and immaculate streets with names like Robin, Tulip and Bluebird belie the long-troubled economy of Northwest Indiana.

Mr. DEL RIO: Well, you'd be surprised, you'd be surprised. I feel, you know, people are kind of downsizing without losing everything. So you've got to realize, this is - these communities around this area were built by steel mills, and all the steel mills downsized and a lot of them closed up.

CORLEY: And a lot of houses in the area are for sale. The economic uncertainty here makes saving for retirement less of a priority. It's more about making ends meet, and it's not just in areas like Northwest Indiana.

Craig Copeland with the Employee Benefit Research Institute says the organization's annual survey shows a big drop in the number of people who feel they will be able to retire comfortably.

Mr. CRAIG COPELAND (Employee Benefit Research Institute): People are growing more concerned about outliving their resources. They're concerned about being able to afford health care in retirement. If you look at what is accumulated, you see that about 50 percent of workers have less than $50,000 in savings, and that certainly is not going to get you very far in retirement when most people retire somewhere between 62 and 65 and they have 20 years of life expectancy. Fifty-thousand dollars really isn't going to go very far over 20 years.

CORLEY: Alice Jones is the office manager for Harbor Marketing, a small operation in Gary, Indiana, that buys and distributes secondary coils used in transformers. When she's at work, she keeps the radio on for company. At age 56 Jones has a few years before she reaches retirement age — not that it matters.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ALICE JONES: I see myself working probably until I just can't work anymore.

CORLEY: For more than 20 years, Jones worked as an aluminum buyer for a company that has since gone bankrupt. When she lost her job, she tapped into her 401(k) retirement fund.

It used to be that people could count on the equity of their homes in tough financial times and especially to help fund their retirements by selling the house, downsizing to a home in the Sunbelt, and living off the proceeds.

Jones says that's a tougher prospect these days, and she found that out when she put her house up for sale a few years ago.

Ms. JONES: It was almost a year before I could sell my house. I made $6,000 off of it. I should have made a whole lot more money than that. It was a very scary, scary thing.

CORLEY: So Jones says while she may think about not working someday, she doesn't see how that's a possibility in today's economy.

But for some, delaying retirement is more of a choice. Seventy-one-year-old Thomas Barnes stands in his green army jacket watching as people load clothes from washing machines into dryers. The former mayor of Gary is an attorney, but his main job these days is running the family business, the Barnes Laundromat and Appliance Repair Service. He took over when his brother decided to retire.

Mr. THOMAS BARNES: Working does help to take the edge off of some of the things. I mean, I've got grandkids, you know, and you have to kind of help them out, you know. But in terms of it being something that I need, no.

CORLEY: But Barnes says for others his age it's the prospect of living longer with limited retirement benefits and increasing health costs that has made many of his peers stay on the payroll.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nationwide nearly one out of four people between the ages 65 and 74 remain in the labor force, and their numbers continue to grow. Cheryl Corley, NPR News.

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