Baby-Boomer Women Face Rugged Retirement Road

Memo: To baby-boomer women. Subject: Retirement. Priority: Urgent.

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Baby-boomer women must and should take retirement-planning matters into their own hands and not wait on government or business to solve the looming problems that await three-quarters of the 40 million women born between 1946 and 1964.

"Baby-boomer women are in trouble," said Paul Hodge, director of Harvard Generations Policy Program and editor of the just-published study, "Baby Boomer Women: Secure Futures or Not?" "Unlike any other time in our nation's history, unless there are dramatic policy shifts, in terms of absolute numbers, baby-boomer women, most particularly minority women, will find their elder years to be a 'never ending' struggle."

According to Hodge, this study is the first to detail how bad off baby-boomer women really are and what needs to happen to solve their problems. A look at the findings:

Change Gender-Biased Retirement Policies

For starters, policymakers have long ignored the needs of women and have largely ignored the plight of women approaching retirement who don't have enough resources to fund their golden years.

"Most retirement policies, government and private, are gender-biased toward white males," Hodge said. "This needs to change quickly. If we don't deal with (these policies) we have a ton of minority women living below the poverty line with no safety nets in place."

Social Security and pension plans are designed to work well for people with stable career employment, he notes. But women typically don't have stable careers. So, under current Social Security rules, he says women are "punished" for being out of the labor market — for taking care of children, providing care to elderly parents and the like. Social Security credits are based on wages posted to a person's Social Security record. No wages equals no credits. In the European Union, however, Hodge says women are not penalized for being out of the labor market.

"It's not a hair-brained idea" to give Social Security credits to American women who are out of the labor force, he said.

In addition, Anna Rappaport, president of a consulting firm bearing her name and a contributor to the study, writes that U.S. policymakers should reduce barriers to "phased retirement" to improve the financial and retirement futures of aging boomer women.

Work Sooner, Work Longer

Hodge also says many boomer women will have to work longer, well into their 60s and beyond, to make up make up for shortfalls in income during retirement. "Given the enormous gains in health and life expectancies, working longer is the only logical way for many women boomers to acquire much needed income," Hodge said.

The need to work longer is a result of several factors: Half of working women don't have access to pension or other retirement plans and most working women don't necessarily earn enough to save enough to fund their retirement years — those working full-time earn only 76 percent of what men earn. About 50 percent of boomer women are working and will work in low-paying jobs.

Fewer Supports

Baby-boomer women are more likely to be divorced or never married. And that too will create the need for women to either keep or start working. Unfortunately, Hodge says boomer women, even though they have greater education and stronger labor-force participation than previous generations, won't receive as much from the retirement-income system as their predecessors.

Of course, not all baby-boomer women will be able to work longer. Other studies suggest half and then some of Americans age 50 and older suffer setbacks of some type that prevent them from working. "The fate of boomer women could be worse than their predecessors, as the boomer women spend more, acquire more debt and are less likely to have traditional pensions, spousal benefits or retiree health coverage," said Hodge.

Hodge also says boomer women and those who follow them should establish their own earnings records as early in their careers as possible.

Don't Depend on Home Equity

Baby-boomer women who plan on converting their equity in their homes into income in retirement could be in for a rude awakening if/when housing values level off or decline. "For boomer women, how financially secure they are likely to be as they age will be greatly influenced by their present and future housing choices," Hodge said.

Fix Health Care

Hodge also says the U.S. health-care system is failing to meet the needs of aging boomer women, especially those in the lower socio-economic groups and among racial/ethnic minorities. For one, women will likely have to pay for their retirement health benefits. And since they earn less while they are working, they won't be able to save for those expense. And since they won't have enough income in retirement, they may not be able to pay for those expenses during retirement, he says.

"From 2020 to 2030, when older boomer women will be 64 to 74, they are projected to face an income shortfall of at least $400 billion dollars," Hodge says.

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