Right about now, Dana Woods expected to be tramping through vineyards in the Rhône Valley on a wine tour of France.
Instead she’s digging in her garden in Victoria.
“This is a surprise situation for me,” she said. “I’ve had to put my timeline in a parking lot for a while.”
Woods, 63, retired from her marketing communications job at the first of the year. Already enrolled in a program at the University of Minnesota to guide workers transitioning out of their careers, she had planned to pursue consulting, visit a new grandson in Colorado and explore the Southwest for future snowbird landing spots.
But now Woods is among the countless number of recent retirees and those nearing the end of their working years who are bumping against an obstacle none of them saw coming during their years of careful preparations.
After decades of laboring in the office, factory or classroom and making sacrifices to load their IRAs and 401(k)s, the life they’d envisioned suddenly seems threatened or unavailable. Their plans to travel, volunteer, get a part-time job or just relax with friends and family have been disrupted by the pandemic.
“With our longer life spans, many people live as many years in retirement as they did working,” said Phyllis Moen, who holds an endowed chair in sociology at the University of Minnesota. “With this longevity bonus and years of active engagement, they’ve rewritten the script. Now there’s a sense of loss as they recognize their choices and opportunities are changing.”
According to Moen, author of “Encore Adulthood: Boomers on the Edge of Risk, Renewal, and Purpose,” older adults want more from retirement than leisure.
Retirement “has become a time to experiment and try things out, start a business, take classes,” she said. “Now the coronavirus is making them more aware of that time is short. This will force people to be more thoughtful about how they want to spend these years.”
And without the carefully crafted playbook that many had compiled, “they’ll have to improvise.”
Defer and delay
Before the pandemic hit, Americans ages 55 and older made up a quarter of the workforce, according to the U.S. Labor Department.
A large number of them felt the knife with layoffs or furloughs as the country shut down. The April unemployment rate for workers 55 and older was 13.6%, a dramatic leap over the January rate of 2.6%.
In analyzing unemployment data compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, three university economics professors concluded that the number of jobless older workers was significantly higher than statistics indicated because a large number have dropped out of the workforce, leading to “ … a wave of earlier-than-planned retirements.”
Older adults also are more susceptible to the virus, for which there currently is no cure. That’s why it’s widely expected that many older adults, especially those with compromising health conditions, may choose not to return to work.
Others waiting for a callback may have had to prematurely tap into their savings or stop socking money away, which could negatively affect their retirement.
“I’m hearing a lot of fear,” said Ruth Hayden, a St. Paul author, financial consultant and educator. “People are calling and asking, ‘The emergency savings you talk about, is this what it’s for?’ And I say, ‘Yes.’ They have to have cash flow.”
Even before the pandemic, workers often got nudged into retirement as they aged.
A January study by Minneapolis-based Allianz Life found that more than half of older workers will be forced from the workplace earlier than expected and for reasons out of their control.
That’s why Hayden is urging older workers who still have jobs to keep punching that clock.
“Some people pick a number and say, ‘I’m going to retire at 62 or 65.’ I’m telling them don’t go ahead because you said you would. Defer and delay,” she said. “Purposefully, intentionally, strategically say ‘Not now.’ Stalling is a good plan. Stall and be happy stalling.”
‘One more year’
The pandemic has made Don Nielsen realize he’s not ready to quit the 9-to-5 after all.
An IT support tech for Minneapolis Public Schools, Nielsen, 67, thought he would retire later this year to spend more time with his wife, their sons and grandchildren.
They’d begun readying their Plymouth home for sale in preparation for downsizing and looked forward to more nights at the theater and splurging on a driving trip to Alaska in a quest to see Northern Lights.
But with his retirement savings taking a hit, the grandkids off limits, real estate transactions feeling iffy and vacations on pause, Nielsen is rethinking his exit.
“I feel better putting more in the pension and letting the money come back while I’m working,” he said. “Maybe go one more year.”
Now solving school computer glitches from his kitchen table, Nielsen’s desire to spend his days with his wife has materialized, but not in the way either of them expected.
“Having Don home all the time is different for us,” said Ava Nielsen, a retired school administrator. “Right now we can’t get away from each other. The things we wanted to do aren’t available because of what’s happening in our world. We wonder how old we’ll be when this eases up and it’s safe to make plans.”
Not a dream or a nightmare
For baby boomers, now between the ages of 56 and 74, the retirement dilemma isn’t all about money.
“This is a period of rude awakening for them. It’s hard on the psyche of a generation that loves youth and wants to be young for as long as they can be,” said Ann Fishman, president of Generational Targeted Marketing, a research and consulting firm. “Because of coronavirus, they’re considered part of the old and vulnerable and they don’t care for that.”
Fishman predicts that the boomers who’d figured they might supplement their retirement incomes with jobs that fed their passions will have to take what they can get instead. She predicts that many will dial down their plans and live a more modest lifestyle.
“Reality isn’t going to give them the bucket list they thought they were entitled to,” she said. “But they have skills, intelligence, a lot to draw on. Rational thinking will kick in. They might not live the dream they envisioned, but it won’t have to be a nightmare.”
Woods, who describes herself as a driven Type A, re-examined her post-retirement priorities when the world came to a halt during the shelter-in-place order.
“I need a road map, goals and a to-do list, otherwise the day gets away,” she said. “I’m not a hobby person, I’m not fulfilled by that. I know that nonprofits are scrambling now. Maybe I can give back to the community there.”
This spring she completed a certificate program in nonprofit leadership and now is working her way through additional online courses, including one on happiness offered by Yale University.
“This is a period of exploration. I worked 60 hours a week throughout my career and now I have time to slow down and think,” she said.
“My mom died at 47. She didn’t get these extra 20 years that I hope to have. I want to use them wisely. I have to reconsider how I’m going to do it.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis freelance broadcaster and writer.