Personal Finance

Unemployed Take Toughest Road to Retirement

Motoko Rich
Key Points

Recent retirement rates top estimates by 200,000 per year, largely due to unemployment.

Between 2008 and 2011 37 percent of older workers who lost their jobs did not return to work.

Working longer is 'the most potent lever' to pull for a 'secure retirement.'

Sources: Social Security Administration, Boston College Center for Retirement, Urban Institute 

Patti McConville | Getty Image

The  desert retirement oasis of Palm town of Springs, Calif. has long beckoned those who want to spin out their golden years playing golf and sitting by the pool in the arid sunshine.

But for Clare Keany, who turned 62 last fall and cannot find work, it feels more like a prison. Just a few miles from the gated estates of corporate chieftains and Hollywood stars, Ms. Keany lives in a tiny mobile home, barely getting by on little more than $1,082 a month from Social Security.

“I would rather be functioning and having a job somewhere,” said Ms. Keany, whose pixie haircut, trim build and crinkling smile suggest someone much younger than her years. “I really don’t enjoy living like this. I’ve got too much to do still.”

Even as most Americans are delaying retirement to bolster their savings accounts, the recession and its protracted aftermath have forced many older people who are out of work to draw Social Security much earlier than they had planned.

According to an analysis by Steve Goss, chief actuary for the Social Security Administration, about 200,000 more people filed initial claims in 2009 and 2010 than the agency had predicted before the recession and he said the trend most likely continued in 2011 and 2012, though that is harder to quantify. The most likely reason is joblessness.

Ms. Keany had always expected to work into her 70s and add to her retirement cushion. But after losing her job as an executive assistant at an advertising agency in 2008, she searched fruitlessly for full-time work and exhausted her unemployment benefits. For a while, she strung together odd jobs and lived off her 401(k) retirement and profit-sharing accounts. Then, this year, with her savings depleted and no job offers in sight, she reluctantly applied for Social Security.

Gazing out the window where the Santa Rosa mountains rise behind the mobile home park, she said, “It just seems a waste of a life, to be honest.”

It just seems like a waste of a life... We're already has-beens, which is so sad. Some of us are still pretty productive. "  
 Forced to retire at 62, living in Palm Springs trailer park.
Clare Keany

Drawing Social Security early has repercussions that will be hard to overcome even if the economy — and her work prospects — improve. By collecting four years shy of her full retirement age, Ms. Keany will receive a reduced monthly benefit for the rest of her life. Those who collect early get 20 to 30 percent less a month than they would get if they waited until full retirement age, which varies by year of birth. People in Ms. Keany’s age bracket are expected to live an average of close to 23 more years.

“The most potent lever that individuals can pull in trying to get themselves a secure retirement income is to postpone claiming” Social Security, said Alicia H. Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

As recently as a decade ago, half of those eligible claimed Social Security at 62. But that share has been falling because people are living longer and still want to work as well as shore up retirement funds. That makes it even more galling for those who are forced to claim early because of unemployment. Several people interviewed mentioned blows to their self-esteem along with abandoned dreams of a more comfortable old age.

According to an analysis by Richard W. Johnson, director of the retirement policy program at the Urban Institute, 37 percent of older workers who lost their jobs between 2008 and 2011 and did not return to work ended up claiming Social Security as soon as they turned 62.

Ms. Keany, who was born in Britain, was making $64,000 a year as an administrative manager for a boutique advertising agency in Santa Monica when the firm lost two of its biggest clients in one week. She has nearly three decades of experience in the United States. She has managed offices, arranged visits by foreign dignitaries, composed employee handbooks and finessed demanding bosses. She said she had also run errands for movie producers, organized home offices and coordinated the administrative details of a drug study.

Those years of experience now work against her, she thinks. “I’m overly qualified, overly skilled,” she said.

Her age is also most likely an impediment. After they lose a job, older workers tend to have a much harder time finding another than younger workers.

A Government Accountability Office report found that just under a third of those 55 to 64 who lost their jobs from 2007 through 2009 had found full-time work by January 2010, compared with 41 percent of people 25 to 54. The median duration of unemployment for those 55 and older was 34.1 weeks in May, according to the Labor Department, in contrast to 22 weeks for all jobless people over 16.

Ms. Keany, who is single and has no children, tried a change of geography. Because the economy in California was so weak, she moved in with friends in Charlotte, N.C., three years ago in hopes of having better luck there. She signed up with employment offices and volunteered, but did not find paying work.

Another friend invited her to stay on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where Ms. Keany eventually began work at a women’s recovery house in exchange for room and utilities. Then Hurricane Irene hit last August and damaged the house. Ms. Keany could not afford to stay.

In a panic, she used the last of her savings to move to Palm Springs last October and buy a $19,000 one-bedroom mobile home in the same park where friends lived two doors down.

“I was so frantic at that point and I was at my wit’s end,” said Ms. Keany, saying she still planned to find a job. “I thought at least with Palm Springs it’s a retirement resort community and I know there’s a lot of business here as well.”

She scoured Craigslist for affluent residents seeking personal assistants. She took a one-month job in Los Angeles, chauffeuring the principal actor on a movie. She applied for a job as a concierge at a Marriott Hotel, but withdrew after hearing it offered only eight hours a week.

Finally, in January, she gave in and filed for Social Security. Her monthly check covers the $336 mobile home park fee plus utilities, her cellphone bill, insurance and a satellite dish. She is also paying $100 a month in credit card debt. To save money, she has canceled the data plan on her BlackBerry and cut back on fresh fruits and vegetables.

After a wind storm blew out a window, she covered it with a tarp because she could not afford to replace the glass.

Ms. Keany is still hoping to find work. Social Security recipients younger than full retirement age can earn up to $14,640 a year without sacrificing any of their monthly benefit. At Ms. Keany’s age, for every $2 earned over that amount, Social Security deducts $1 in benefits.

This month, she flew back to the Outer Banks to stay with friends and work part time in two gift shops over the summer. If she cannot find permanent work in North Carolina, she plans to return to Palm Springs in the fall.

She is discouraged by what she sees as youth-obsessed employers. “We’re already has-beens, which is so sad,” Ms. Keany said. “Some of us are still pretty productive.”