Gen X retirement plans: Still time to catch up

Compared to retiring baby boomers, so many of whom are racing to beat the clock to save for their golden years, Gen X has an edge in this regard. 

Defined as those born from 1965 to 1978, “Generation X has fallen behind on their retirement savings, but they still have time to catch up and improve their retirement outlook if they begin focusing on it right now,” said Catherine Collinson, president of the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies (TCRS).

Collinson’s comments reflect the results of an online survey that Transamerica conducted earlier this year of 4,161 full-time or part-time employees who work in for-profit companies with at least 10 workers. Let’s take a look at what Transamerica found that’s working -- and what needs improvement -- regarding Gen X retirement planning.

What’s working

Like their baby boom elders, many working Gen Xers have heard and acted on the message that they need to save for retirement. More than three-fourths (77 percent) of survey respondents said they’re saving for retirement in an employer-sponsored retirement plan or outside of work. The median amount they’re saving is 7 percent of their annual salaries.

While this amount alone may not be adequate to finance a comfortable retirement, if employer matching contributions are added, total contributions might be sufficient. Gen Xers should review their retirement plan to make sure their savings are adequate (see below).

Gen Xers also have realistic expectations about retirement ages and their standard of living in retirement. More than half (55 percent) said they’ll work beyond age 65, and nearly the same (51 percent) reported they plan to work in their retirement years. These are realistic perspectives that will help their retirement savings last longer, given our increased lifespans.

Other good news: Only 13 percent of Gen Xers think their standard of living will increase in retirement, and 34 percent think it will remain the same. More than half either believe their standard of living will decrease in retirement, or aren’t sure what will happen with it.

While this might look like bad news, actually it’s realistic to assume your income might decrease in retirement, given trends in saving. In addition, some studies indicate that retirees can still be happy by trading some of their material standard of living for their retirement freedom.

More than half (55 percent) of Gen Xers said they’re staying healthy so they can continue working in their later years. This is a critical step, given the increasing reliance on this strategy and the ever-rising costs for medical services.

But this is a “glass half full” situation: The other 45 percent who don’t report they’re staying healthy would do well to focus on their health as an important retirement planning step.

What needs improvement

The median amount of retirement savings reported by Gen Xers is $69,000, which won’t come anywhere close to funding an adequate retirement. More than half (52 percent) guess at their retirement savings needs, and often they guess too low. 

The median amount of savings that Gen Xers reported they’d need is $500,000. Using the 4 percent rule as a reality check, this amount would generate an annual income of about $20,000 per year in addition to Social Security.

Fortunately, Gen Xers are at the perfect stage in their lives to make mid-course adjustments. This entails preparing realistic estimates of their retirement needs and developing a savings strategy to meet their goals.

Unfortunately, 40 percent of Gen Xers have no strategy for their retirement, and another 44 percent have a strategy that isn’t written down. Studies show that retirement saving success improves when workers have a written strategy.

If they need help with retirement planning, consulting a financial adviser might be a good move. However, only a little more than one-third (39 percent) of Gen Xers said they’re working with one. Seeking skilled and unbiased financial advice​ might be a priority for many Gen Xers.

More than one-fourth (30 percent) have already taken a loan, early withdrawal or hardship withdrawal from their retirement savings. No doubt, one reason is the financial strain they might be feeling, potentially squeezed by raising children, paying for college and caring for aging parents. 

More than one in three (37 percent) reported having less than $5,000 to cover the cost of a major financial setback, such as unemployment, medical bills, car repairs or home repairs. Building such an emergency reserve can help prevent needing to prematurely tap retirement savings.

Spending on college for children is a particularly important issue for Gen Xer parents. As a result, they’ll want to carefully consider the most cost-efficient way to get their children the education they need to get a good start in life. If Gen Xers sacrifice their retirement saving​ to pay for their children’s education, they might be coming back to their children for financial help later in life.

In short, Gen Xers will want to take time to fine-tune their retirement plans. If they need professional help, which is understandable, they’ll want to find skilled and unbiased financial advisers. They’ll also want to ramp up action steps to improve their health.

“Generation X entered the workforce in the late 1980s and is the first generation to have access to 401(k) plans for the majority of their working careers,” said Collinson. “They are early adapters who had to learn from their own experience without precedents to help guide their way.” 

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    Steve Vernon helped large employers design and manage their retirement programs for more than 35 years as a consulting actuary. Now he's a research scholar for the Stanford Center on Longevity, where he helps collect, direct and disseminate research that will improve the financial security of seniors. He's also president of Rest-of-Life Communications, delivers retirement planning workshops and authored Retirement Game-Changers: Strategies for a Healthy, Financially Secure and Fulfilling Long Life and Money for Life: Turn Your IRA and 401(k) Into a Lifetime Retirement Paycheck.