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The Coronavirus Is Scrambling Retirement, But There Are Ways to Move Forward
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The Coronavirus Is Scrambling Retirement, But There Are Ways to Move Forward

From affecting the stock market to normalizing social distancing, COVID-19 is adding more uncertainty to an already challenging life transition. Here’s how to overcome and thrive.

Illustrations by Jialun Deng

Janice Bassil began this year thinking about retirement. A successful trial attorney, the 66-year-old has spent more than three decades practicing family and criminal law. Along the way, she’s won awards from her peers, taught at a local university, and run a legal office.

While Bassil isn’t ready to completely walk away from the profession she loves, she’s grown increasingly weary of its demanding nature and describes workdays as “putting out one fire after another.” So to plan and prepare for a less stressful future, in mid-March Bassil met with Roberta Taylor, a retirement coach.

Then the coronavirus pandemic happened.

As social distancing took hold and everyday American life came to an abrupt and disorienting halt, Taylor reached out to her client via text: Did Bassil want to continue mapping out the contours of her future life?

Bassil didn’t know how to answer.

“She said, ‘I’ll be back in touch, but right now I’m looking at all of this and what’s happening with the stock market and what that means for me,’” says Taylor, the co-author of The Couple’s Retirement Puzzle: 10 Must-Have Conversations for Creating an Amazing New Life Together. “She was thinking that she may not be able to retire when she wanted to.”

Causing everything from increased remote work to shuttered schools to a shutdown of major sports, the COVID-19 crisis is upending every aspect of society. Retirement is no different. A financial and psychological challenge in the best of times, the transition from full-time work to all that comes next has been overturned by the pandemic.

Like Bassil, both current and would-be retirees are facing changed plans and an unsettling, arguably unprecedented level of uncertainty about the future. For some people, the economic fallout of COVID-19 will mean working longer than they expected; for others, it will mean being pushed into unplanned retirements. Market volatility connected to the virus will be a worry for many as they watch and manage their nest eggs and portfolios. Meanwhile, social distancing and other public health measures are altering the ability of older Americans to exercise, travel, and be active and engaged, even as parts of the country cautiously reopen.

“People think of retirement as a life transition, but it’s actually multiple transitions going on simultaneously,” says Nancy K. Schlossberg, a University of Maryland emerita professor and the author of 10 books on retirement and life transitions. “Your identity, purpose, and relationships are all in flux. Now we have the overlay of a virus which has shut down the country—and we don’t know what is going to come out of that. It’s adding another layer of complexity.”

“There’s no stable ground right now.”

Michele Audet’s life was complicated enough without COVID-19. After nearly 14 years working in long-term care insurance, the 65-year-old has spent the past year and a half working part-time at a local fitness center, studying to be certified as a personal trainer and looking for a full-time job in the active aging field.

“Then this whole [pandemic] hit,” says Audet. She was planning to use her background in social work, lifestyle medicine, and technology to launch her own business focused on helping people stay active and healthy. Those plans are up in the air too.

“I have no intention of retiring, and frankly, I can’t afford to,” she says. “But where do things go from here? I think this is going to be a long haul, something that doesn’t get done in the next three or six months. So which way do I go? There’s no stable ground right now.”

The pandemic has brought the longest economic expansion in U.S. history to a sudden end, creating stock market volatility and leaving millions of Americans out of work. People close to retirement also are feeling the pain. Almost half of Americans age 55 and older have no financial savings for life after work, and even individuals who have squirreled away money in investment portfolios are looking at a changed, unnerving landscape.

Joe Casey, a New Jersey–based executive and retirement coach and the host of The Retirement Wisdom Podcast, typically works with executives who are actively planning to step away from their jobs—and soon. By and large, they are people who have prepared financially for retirement. Since the start of the pandemic, he says, about one-third of his clients have “frozen up.”

“They were thinking of retiring in six months or a year,” says Casey. “Now it’s two, three, maybe four more years.” During the 2009 financial crisis, nearly four in 10 workers over age 62 delayed their retirements because of the recession; a decade later, people aged 65 and older made up 6.6 percent of the U.S. workforce—more than double the percentage in 2000.

While older Americans may need to keep working out of financial necessity, remaining employed could prove difficult. More than half of workers experience at least one involuntary job loss after age 50. Older workers have a harder time finding jobs due to age discrimination—and when they do find one, only one in 10 earns as much as in their previous position.

Exacerbating matters will be a coronavirus-induced recession that could become the worst downturn in decades—or, at the very least, figures to hit industries such as travel, leisure, and entertainment particularly hard for months to come. “In past economic downturns, when employers do layoffs and reductions in force, older adults tend to be sidelined,” says Paul Irving, chairman of the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging. “They are often the first to be fired and the last to be rehired.” Meanwhile, the health risks posed by the virus itself may make it even more difficult for older workers to get back in the game. Face-to-face career networking could be verboten for months to come; loans to launch new businesses will be tough to obtain; and the majority of available jobs may be largely in industries with a dangerously high level of public contact, like delivery driving or grocery-store work.

IN MARCH-APRIL 2020

  • 77% of Americans over age 60 paid bills or made financial transactions online.
  • 70% shopped online.
  • 28% downloaded a new app.
  • 24% ordered food or groceries online.
  • 23% worked from home on a personal computer.
  • 7% used a new video conferencing app.
APRIL 2020 PIPLSAY SURVEY OF 30,000 AMERICAN ADULTS.

Then there are the lifestyle changes that come with COVID-19. Prior to the pandemic, 72-year-old Jim Lomastro used to take as many as eight trips a year to vacation, visit family, and do charitable work with migrants near the U.S.-Mexican border. In March and April, however, he had to cancel planned trips to Canada, California, Michigan, and Texas, as well as an upcoming European cruise for his granddaughter’s high school graduation. “I miss traveling the most,” he says.

Still, Lomastro considers himself lucky. Two of his granddaughters live with him—so while he’s stuck at home, he’s hardly isolated. Others may not be as fortunate. COVID-19 has closed restaurants and churches, theaters and gyms, shopping malls and senior centers. Those types of public gathering places have begun to reopen. But just how safe and accessible they will be remains to be seen. Older Americans are already at risk of social isolation and corresponding loneliness; over time, the pandemic could leave them even more disconnected.

“My clients who retired to really retire are having the hardest time,” says Casey. “They had a vision of this phase of life that was active and social … They talk about losing time and that time being so valuable because they’re getting older and the kids are growing up. There’s a lot of emotional pain there—an element of grief.”

“It’s not the end of the world.”

How can people cope? According to Schlossberg, who has spent much of her life studying the psychology of change and transition, there are no simple answers. However, effective strategies tend to fall into three categories: changing difficult situations, reframing difficult situations that can’t be changed, and relieving the stress of dealing with difficult situations.

“When anything is going wrong, ask three questions,” says Schlossberg. “Can I change it? Can I change the way I see it? And can I reduce my stress?”

“We cannot change the virus. It’s here. So all we really have is the ability to recognize it, look at it differently, and realize that it’s not the end of the world.”

People worried about their finances can check in with their advisors or calculate their retirement numbers to see whether they are saving enough. The results may not be immediately reassuring, but they can give a clearer picture of where someone stands and what needs to be done, such as recalibrating expenses to having tough conversations with children about college costs. Individuals with seemingly shaky nest eggs also should keep in mind that retirement is a long-haul proposition compared to market and business cycles: Americans who are 65 today have an average life expectancy of nearly 85 years, and many will live into their nineties.

“We see that retirees are more confident and seem to enjoy their retirement more if they have planned for the events that we know will take place—such as stock market downturns and health concerns,” says Molly Ward, a Texas-based CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professional with Equitable Advisors. “If you’re within five years of thinking you are going to retire, this is the time to ask if your money is lined up correctly and if you know how your dollars are going to be used in retirement.

“And especially in a pandemic, you should be asking your ‘ducks in a row’ questions: Is my money protected if I get sick? Do I have insurance coverage if I lose my job to an illness? If I’m older, do I have enough funds to cover potential long-term care costs?”

Ward says that the coronavirus has left many of her clients thinking less about their own retirements than about how to protect and help their families. One client, a recently retired executive and his wife, called Ward to discuss their children and grandchildren. “They wanted to know: If they passed away today, what would their estate plan look like?” Ward says. “But they also were wondering if they had influenced their children enough, if they had given them the right values about money.”

The next call was about the wife’s elderly parents, who currently reside in a nursing home in another state. “They want to get her parents out and have them come live with them for the rest of their lives,” Ward says. “The problem is, they can’t see the parents right now, and that needs to be a face-to-face conversation. In this environment, people are going to have to figure out how to have these tough conversations creatively. Sooner is better than later, so don’t put it off.”

“What you see over and over with this pandemic is that money and life go hand-in-hand.”

Psychologically, it’s important to realize that the pandemic will almost certainly produce what a former Department of Homeland Security official calls an “adaptive recovery”—a long, slow process of shifting social and public health measures. For retirement-age Americans, successfully coping with COVID-19 won’t mean learning to love “the new normal” of social distancing and wearing masks to the grocery store. But it will mean adapting to and making peace with uncertainty.

Adjoa Acquaah-Harrison is taking that approach. An executive consultant in her sixties who specializes in international philanthropy and development, she was a finalist for a full-time position just before the pandemic erupted. “Right after, I learned that the position would be frozen indefinitely,” she says. Taking things in stride, Acquaah-Harrison has maintained an optimistic outlook through daily prayer and activities that bring her joy: walking, reading, singing, writing, and even filling in coloring books. She also uses video and audio chats to stay connected with friends in philanthropy as well as family members who live in Canada, Ghana, and the United Kingdom.

“We are all trying to figure out how best to support and heal each other in love,” she says. “We can make plans and project our future lives all we want, but there is a common saying back in Ghana: Man proposes and God disposes.”

To relieve stress and remain physically active, Acquaah-Harrison walks in place in her home. Audet practices tai chi and does nature photography. Schlossberg, 91, has taken up painting. “My paintings are horrible,” she says with a laugh. “But who cares?”

While about a third of Americans age 65 and older don’t feel confident using digital technology, retirement-aged people can overcome isolation by embracing new ways to connect with loved ones. Taylor, the retirement coach, was supposed to fly from Boston to Portland, Oregon, to visit her eight-year-old granddaughter in March. Instead, the two play hangman and tic-tac-toe over video chat. “She took me outside the other day to meet one of her friends,” says Taylor. “They made sure to stand six feet apart.”

Technology also may help older workers who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 find new jobs—or keep their current ones—through increased acceptance of working from home. One recent study found that 37 percent of jobs could be done from home; in early April, a survey of 25,000 Americans found that 34 percent had switched to working from home as a response to the pandemic.

Casey, the executive and retirement coach, believes that near-retirees should use this time to engage in serious self-reflection—the kind, he says, that most of us put off because we’re too busy working. “One thing I see all the time with people thinking about retirement is that they’re afraid that they’re going to be bored,” he says. “They’re afraid that they won’t be relevant any longer. Afraid that they won’t be intellectually challenged. Right now, their jobs give them that.

“So this period can be a time to get a running start on finding renewed identity and a sense of purpose. What can you do? You can do something new. Cook something new. Read something new. Learn something new. Realize that, ‘Okay, I’m probably going to encounter some of these things in retirement. So how do I want to prepare?’”

COVID-19: Coping With the New Normal

  1. Stay Active: Physical exercise improves mood, reduces stress, and contributes greatly to overall health. Though many gyms and recreation centers are closed and group classes are on pause, you can keep moving with outdoor walks and hikes and indoor workouts via online videos and classes, some of which are free. Meanwhile, it’s equally important to engage your brain—try taking an online course or learning how to cook a new dish.
  2. Manage Your Money: Pandemic-induced unemployment and stock market volatility will leave retirees and pre-retirees alike facing tough and complicated decisions— including reworking budgets, liquidating assets, taking out loans, cutting back on planned spending, closing or selling businesses, creating emergency funds, and delaying retirement or returning to work. A financial planner or advisor can help you assess your individual situation, weigh the issues, navigate difficult conversations with loved ones, and achieve your goals.
  3. Keep in (Virtual) Touch: Even before social distancing, Americans age 50 and older were at elevated risk for unhealthy levels of social isolation and loneliness. Technology can help you stay connected, such as video chats with friends and family or online book clubs with like-minded readers. If the internet isn’t an option, old-fashioned phone calls are a perfectly good substitute—and some programs even connect older people with younger volunteers for regular phone chats.
  4. Nurture Your Purpose: Health risks and stay-at-home orders are keeping people away from relatives, churches, volunteer work, planned trips, and countless other sources of daily structure and meaning in their lives. Creating and sticking to a daily schedule that includes projects and activities that provide enjoyment and a sense of productivity can make a big difference; so can finding alternate ways of engaging with things that already provide purpose, like helping grandchildren with their online homework or arranging regular video conference calls with members of organizations that you belong to. Making plans for travel or projects you want to tackle once the pandemic has passed also can give you a greater sense of efficacy—as well as something to look forward to.

Bassil, the attorney who was considering retirement, can relate. Her first job, she says, was at a bagel store when she was 14 years old. “I’ve been working ever since,” she says. “I think my greatest fear with retirement is that I don’t want to just sort of end up sitting on the sofa. How much TV can you watch?”

To Bassil’s surprise, however, she has enjoyed the slower pace of life that has come with the pandemic. She has time to write fiction, a pursuit she once took classes for and then put aside. She and a friend in California are reading a Dostoevsky novel together. She has been making lasagna and leaving it at the doorstep of her nephew, a Boston-area doctor.

Bassil is still working, too—just not as much. “The other day, I spent an entire day watching crime scene videos,” she says. “I was like, ‘Wow, I haven’t done this in years.’ I forgot how much I enjoyed it. What I always loved about criminal law is how it’s like a Rubik’s Cube—you keep turning and turning these pieces until you find an answer.”

Because of the pandemic, Bassil’s retirement timetable remains up in the air. But ironically, her vision of life after work has become more clear. “The one positive I see in all of this is that it has shown me that I can work at a slower pace and still fit in other things I want to do,” she says. “That part isn’t half bad.”