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News from EPI A broken U.S. retirement system has stranded vulnerable older workers

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the plight of many older U.S. workers who cannot afford to retire yet are stuck in bad jobs or forced to leave the labor force before they’re ready.

The Older Workers and Retirement Chartbook from the Economic Policy Institute and the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis documents the risks and disparities in retirement preparedness among demographic groups. It offers a comprehensive look at the connections between labor market challenges facing older workers and retirement insecurity, using 33 charts to bring light to the problem.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, 4 in 10 Americans 55 and older were in the labor force, their highest participation rate in a half-century, the chartbook finds. The upward trend in labor force participation in recent decades reflects in part greater opportunities for older workers who want to keep working—but it also reflects retirement insecurity among some workers. The authors document how many older workers who cannot afford to retire face diminishing job quality and earnings due to a loss of bargaining power.

“Workers may work longer to close the retirement income gap, but this is neither a fair nor a realistic solution to a broken retirement system,” says Monique Morrissey, EPI economist and co-author of the report. “Policy choices have weakened unions, eroded the real value of the minimum wage, and allowed employers to shift more responsibility for retirement onto workers. These all contribute to older workers’ declining bargaining power.”

Black, Hispanic, women, disabled, and LGBTQ workers are at greater risk of hardship at older ages because of systemic problems. Black and Hispanic workers are more likely to lack access to retirement plans or have access to less generous plans. Lower lifetime earnings make it harder for workers of color, women, and people with disabilities to save for retirement. Women’s greater caregiving responsibilities and longer life spans also put them at higher risk of old-age poverty despite closing the retirement plan coverage gap with men. LGBTQ seniors face adverse effects of past and present discrimination, including less access to spousal benefits.

“Everyone faces significant risks as they age, even well-off Americans,” explains report co-author Siavash Radpour. “It is unrealistic to expect all older workers to save enough to guard against the possibility of losing their jobs, retiring during a market downturn, being widowed or divorced, or incurring expensive medical or long-term care needs.”

The authors outline several targeted policies that can improve the lives of older workers, including:

  • Enforcing age discrimination laws;
  • Expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit to help more adults without dependent children;
  • Lowering employer health care costs for older workers;
  • Changing performance metrics used to evaluate training programs that lead them to favor enrolling younger workers;
  • Creating a dedicated Older Workers Bureau in the Department of Labor to help identify and address challenges facing older workers.

But targeted policies are only one part of the solution. “Retirement insecurity comes from systemic problems, and these require systemic solutions,” Barbara Schuster, co-author of the chartbook, explains. “Improving working conditions for all workers is vitally important, as is strengthening social insurance programs that offer critical protections.”

Broader policies include:

  • Pursuing full-employment macroeconomic policies;
  • Protecting workers’ right to collectively bargain for better wages and working conditions;
  • Raising the minimum wage;
  • Enacting paid leave and scheduling policies to ensure workers can take time to care for themselves and their families;
  • Increasing caregiver supports;
  • Fixing the patchwork unemployment system;
  • Better protecting workers from injury and illness;
  • Expanding and removing barriers to accessing Social Security and SSI benefits;
  • Ensuring access to affordable health care and long-term care.