Nearly 6 in 10 workers are still recovering after the Great Recession

  • A decade after the start of the Great Recession, American workers are still making up for ground they lost after the financial crisis.
  • At the same time, today's soon-to-be retirees are woefully unprepared for another downturn.

Joe Vier was on track for a secure retirement as an advertising executive in the Detroit auto industry. He was making more than $100,000 a year and contributing to his 401(k) savings plan at work. That was in 2008.

Then the S&P 500 tumbled roughly 50 percent and $2.7 trillion in retirement accounts were lost in the crash.

Detroit was particularly hard hit — bankruptcies in the auto industry led to mass layoffs and a foreclosure crisis that brought the city to its knees.

The city of Detroit has faced serious economic challenges in the past decade, with a shrinking population and tax base while trying to maintain essential services. 
Getty Images
The city of Detroit has faced serious economic challenges in the past decade, with a shrinking population and tax base while trying to maintain essential services. 

A decade later, Vier, 58, is working at a Florida theme park as a photographer. He said he was never able to find another position in his field.

"I had worked my whole career in automotive advertising, it kind of pigeonholed me," Vier said.

His annual income now is about $25,000, which makes it difficult to save for retirement.

"I'm contributing a little bit but nothing like when I was in advertising and it's impossible to build a nest egg back up," he said.

In a survey of workers from the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies, 56 percent of respondents said they have not fully recovered from the Great Recession.

Of those respondents, 37 percent said they have somewhat recovered, 12 percent said they have not begun to recover and 7 percent said they may never recover.

Yet by most measures, today's economy is strong. The S&P 500 is hitting record levels. Americans' consumer confidence rose in August to the highest level in 18 years. The economic growth rate was 4.1 percent in July, its fastest pace in four years and the unemployment rate is below 4 percent, near an 18-year low. (In the months after the recession, the unemployment rate peaked at 10 percent.)

Still, 7 in 10 Americans believe that there will be more financial crises in the future, yet only about half recognize they need a financial plan that anticipates up and down cycles. Even fewer — 44 percent — actually have such a plan in place, according to Northwestern Mutual's 2018 Planning & Progress study.

"For a person who does not have a disciplined approach, it's kind of like being tossed in the waves," said Keith Moeller, a certified financial planner and wealth management advisor at Northwestern Mutual.

"There's a lot more information available now than there was 10 years ago," he said, "but people have to walk through it to really know it."

"Knowledge is power," said Lisa Hayes, a senior wealth strategist at PNC Wealth Management.

"Everyone should have an understanding of their financial position — what income is coming in and what is going out to cover expenses," she said. "Then you can see where you can cut expenses if you have to."

From there, Hayes advises clients to create a plan that addresses short- and long-term goals. That means "helping you diversify as these fluctuations occur so you can keep sleeping at night."

That doesn't just mean a well balanced portfolio.

"Many times, 90 percent of the attention has been on investments, the mistake is to minimize all of the other pieces of their estate plan, like taxes and the cost of long-term care." Moeller said.

(One Fidelity study found a typical retired couple will have $260,000 in out-of-pocket health-care outlays. Long-term care could add another $130,000.)

Further, clients often underestimate their life expectancy, he said. In fact, 43 percent of retirees and 38 percent of preretirees fell short by at least five years when asked to gauge the average life expectancy for someone of their age and gender, according to a survey from the Society of Actuaries.

For today's soon-to-be retirees, the stakes are as high as they were 10 years ago.

"What we typically recommend for those nearing retirement is to keep aside a war chest," said Neil Krishnaswamy, a CFP and advisor at Exencial Wealth Advisors in Frisco, Texas.

"That's roughly about five years' worth of living expenses in relatively safe investments, outside of equities: fixed income and cash assets," Krishnaswamy said. "Then we have some means to create relatively sustainable distributions to get through down periods."

"These big events can happen but it's really about your behavior through those events that can give you your long-term security."

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Almost half of Americans don't expect to have enough to retire comfortably — but there's good news
Five ways for 50-somethings to get serious about planning for retirement
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