Personal Finance

Today's retirement is comprised of the haves and have-nots. These factors determine which category you will fall into.

Key Points
  • Retirement inequality starts well before individuals approach their golden years, according to new research.
  • Your level of education, gender or race could make it more difficult for you to have the wherewithal to save enough money to age comfortably.
  • While these factors are often beyond an individual's control, changing public policies could help offset these disadvantages, one researcher argues.
Fifty-eight percent of Americans have less than $1000 saved
Fifty-eight percent of Americans have less than $1000 saved

Charles Dickens famously began his novel "A Tale of Two Cities" with the line, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

That same description can be used to describe the dual nature of today's retirement.

Depending on how well you've saved and prepared, you are either ready to enjoy your golden years or wondering how you will make ends meet.

"We really have a portrait of the best of worlds and the worst of worlds when it comes to retirement," said Deborah Carr, professor and chair of the sociology department at Boston University.

Clarissa Leahy | Cultura | Getty Images

Carr's new book, "Golden Years? Social Inequality in Later Life," sets out to explore why. The findings are based on Carr's own research and government data.

The research points to several factors that can set you back during your retirement years before you even approach that life stage.

The first is education, according to Carr. Whether you have a college education helps determine what kind of job you have. That, in turn, determines how long you will work.

If you have a college education, you typically have a desk job that is not physically strenuous. If you do not attend college, your job is more likely to involve strenuous physical labor.

While most college-educated individuals express the desire to retire early, and non-college educated workers want to work longer, the opposite often happens, Carr said.

Non-college educated individuals are more likely to have to step out of the work force early because their jobs become too physically strenuous.

"It's kind of the grand irony that those who can afford to retire aren't actually the ones retiring, because they have the jobs that actually fit their aging minds and bodies," Carr said.

In addition to education, two other factors are strong contributors to how well you live in your elder years: gender and race, according to Carr.

Closing the wealth gap can start with retirement savings, says financial advisor
Closing the wealth gap can start with retirement savings, says financial advisor

Women, in particular, tend to suffer more compared to men because they typically take time out of the workforce to care for their children, parents and spouses.

"Because women have such discontinuous work histories, they have lower income, they have lower private pensions and they have fewer savings of their own," Carr said.

Women are more likely to outlive their husbands. With the rise of "gray divorce" among more mature couples, they are also more likely to wind up single in their later years.

Minorities such as African Americans or Latinos also often come up short in retirement, Carr said, but for different reasons. They are more likely to work in jobs that require more physical labor and often have fewer opportunities to climb the corporate ladder.

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Because these forces are mostly beyond an individual's control, there is really only one way to improve them, according to Carr.

"What we need is to really think collectively about public policies that strengthen the social safety net," Carr said.

That includes proposals such as the Social Security 2100 Act that was recently proposed in the House of Representatives. That legislation, if enacted, could help boost the minimum benefit so that it's well above the federal poverty line, Carr said.

And while sweeping changes included in Medicare for All proposals might be tough to get through Congress, lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 50 could help those individuals who have to leave the work force early, Carr said.

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