Speculation: more Americans choose to pursue unretirement to find meaning

Various data points show more Americans continuing to work even when do not need the money at retirement age:

Unretirement is becoming more common, researchers report. A 2010 analysis by Nicole Maestas, an economist at Harvard Medical School, found that more than a quarter of retirees later resumed working. A more recent survey, from RAND Corporation, the nonprofit research firm, published in 2017, found almost 40 percent of workers over 65 had previously, at some point, retired…

Even more people might resume working if they could find attractive options. “We asked people over 50 who weren’t working, or looking for a job, whether they’d return if the right opportunity came along,” Dr. Mullen said. “About half said yes.”

Why go back to work? We hear endless warnings about Americans having failed to save enough, and the need for income does motivate some returning workers. But Dr. Maestas, using longitudinal data from the national Health and Retirement Study, has found that the decision to resume working doesn’t usually stem from unexpected financial problems or health expenses…

Researchers note that older workers have different needs. “Younger workers need the paycheck,” Dr. Mullen said. “Older jobseekers look for more autonomy, control over the pace of work. They’re less concerned about benefits. They can think about broader things, like whether the work is meaningful and stimulating.”

One of the primary ways that adult Americans find meaning is in their jobs. Not only does a job help pay the bills, a job has become a reflection of who you are. Think of that normal question that leads off many an adult conversation: “What do you do?” With a shift away from manufacturing and manual labor jobs, service and white-collar jobs can encourage the idea that our personality and skills are intimately tied up with our profession.
Put this emphasis on an identity rooted in a job or career together with a declining engagement in civic groups and a mistrust in institutions. Americans are choosing to interact less with a variety of social groups and this means they have fewer opportunities to find an identity based in those organizations. We are told to be our own people.
Imagine a different kind of retirement than the one depicted in this article: older Americans finish a long working career and then find time to get involved with extended family life or various causes, secular and religious, where they can provide both expertise and labor. Where would many congregations or civic groups be without the contributions of those who are retired and now can devote some more time to the public good? What if the child care needs that many younger families face be met with grandparents who could consistently help? What if retired Americans could regularly mentor children and teenagers who would benefit from wise counsel and a listening ear? That is not to say there are not plenty of retirees who do these things; however, this approach involves a broader look at life satisfaction that goes beyond a paying job.

Older Americans with growing amounts of mortgage debt

One impediment to retirement for many Americans will be what they owe on their home:

The proportion of homeowners over 55 with housing debt has climbed, the Boston College group recently reported. Dr. Sanzenbacher provided the numbers: 50 percent still had mortgages, home equity loans or lines of credit in 2013, compared with 38 percent in 1998.

An Urban Institute study published this month, based on data from the national Health and Retirement Study, found a similar pattern among homeowners over 65. The proportion with housing debt rose to 35 percent in 2012 from 23.9 percent in 1998.

Moreover, the median amount they owed nearly doubled, to $82,000 from $44,000…

Her work has shown that older people with mortgage debt tend to stay in the labor force longer, and to delay receiving Social Security benefits.

In other words, the consequences of the burst housing bubble are still working their way out. If older Americans owe more money on their homes, they are likely to work longer and stay in their homes longer, making it more difficult for younger Americans to move into the work force and purchase a starter home. And if both older and younger Americans are still struggling in the housing market, who is actually coming out ahead? The truly wealthy who aren’t as hampered by mortgages.

More older Americans dealing with mortgage debt

Retirement may look quite different for many Americans who have more mortgage debt than in the past:

Nearly a third of homeowners 65 and older had a mortgage in 2011, up from 22% in 2001, according to an analysis from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, using the latest available data.

The debt burden also grew — with older homeowners owing a median of $79,000 in 2011, compared with an inflation-adjusted $43,400 a decade earlier.

For decades, Americans strove hard to pay off their mortgages before retirement, an aspiration that when achieved was celebrated with mortgage-burning parties…

A recent study from Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies showed that of mortgage holders ages 65 to 79, nearly half spent 30% or more of their income on housing costs. Of mortgage holders 80 or older, 61% pay that amount on housing.

This continues a trend noted last year. This is worth watching as a higher percentage of Americans are older and this particularly affects older residents in more expensive markets where housing options are not as cheap. Homeowners could have several options down the road. First, perhaps they shouldn’t buy homes close to retirement age. Unfortunately, this means they might not be as flexible in searching out new jobs. Second, they may have to sell at retirement and bank that money for future concerns. Yet, even if they can make a good return on selling their home, moving can still be a tough transition (even within a metro area as opposed to moving to significantly cheaper markets). Third, they may have to pursue other living arrangements at retirement such as renting rooms or small apartments in their dwelling to try to make some extra money.

What happens if a Catholic archbishop moves to a New Jersey McMansion in retirement?

“A Catholic archibishop moves into a McMansion for his retirement…” might be the start of a joke or it may be this story from New Jersey:

The 4,500-square-foot home sits on 8.2 wooded acres in the hills of Hunterdon County. With five bedrooms, three full bathrooms, a three-car garage and a big outdoor pool, it’s valued at nearly $800,000, records show.

But it’s not quite roomy enough for Newark Archbishop John J. Myers.

Myers, who has used the Franklin Township house as a weekend residence since the archdiocese purchased it in 2002, is building a three-story, 3,000-square-foot addition in anticipation of his retirement in two years, The Star-Ledger found. He will then move in full-time, a spokesman for the archbishop said.

The new wing, now just a wood frame, will include an indoor exercise pool, a hot tub, three fireplaces, a library and an elevator, among other amenities, according to blueprints and permits filed with the Franklin Township building department.

There are quite a few details about the house in this story. It sounds like a fairly lavish McMansion but there are plenty of similar homes in New Jersey, a state closely tied to McMansions due to its many suburbanites as well as the famous Soprano McMansion.

However, there is also a lot of questioning of why an archibishop needs such a lavish house. The issue isn’t just that this is a big or poorly-designed house. Rather, this is a moral issue. Shouldn’t priests live simply and serve God rather than live it up in a McMansion paid for by church members? If purchasing a McMansion is excessive spending for an average American and threatens to throw off their retirements, how much more so is it for an archbishop? This could lead to an interesting conversation of just what kind of housing priests should live in to best pursue their vocation and provide the image the church wants to project.

McMansions can derail your retirement plans

Amidst concerns baby boomers will have difficulty selling their homes, here is a suggestion that buying a McMansion can derail retirement plans:

We occasionally hear about a friend who somehow saved up enough money, or just decided to chuck it, and walks off to retire at age 60, 55 or even 50. It can be done.

Also, some people live in a McMansion, drive a Tesla, and vacation in the south of France. But we know it’s a very expensive lifestyle. And we know we all can’t afford it, as the real estate bust of the 2000s so cruelly reminded us. We need to appreciate that, like buying a McMansion, taking early retirement is a very expensive proposition. Yes, a fortunate few can afford it. But most of us just have to get real.

Two things are interesting here. The first is that purchasing a McMansion seriously hampers retirement plans. Purchasing one uses up a lot of money and saddles the owner with a large mortgage (plus the home might be underwater and it can cost a lot to fill such a large home). A more prudent investor would purchase a more modest home rather than splurging on a McMansion.

The second interesting part of this is the comparison to owning a Tesla or vacationing in France, both relatively rare things. For example, Teslas start around $70,000 and only about 22,500 were sold in 2013. In the 2000s, it was common to see McMansion purchases compared to SUVs, a mass production item that cost much less than a Tesla. The implication then is that McMansions are even rarer today, making it even more of a folly to own one.

More Americans retiring with a mortgage

The number of Americans retiring while still having to pay off a mortgage has increased in recent decades:

In 1989, just 26.4% of all households were retired with a mortgage, according to data from the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances. That jumped to 46.5% by 2007, before receding a bit during the recession.

These stats trouble traditionalists, who view owing money on a house in retirement as heresy. After all, paying off a mortgage brings peace of mind, because you know your living expenses have been cut and that your home equity offers a sturdy safety net.

Yet clinging to a mortgage in retirement has benefits too, especially with the average 30-year fixed-rate mortgage running at just 3.5%. You might be better off keeping the mortgage and investing the money elsewhere, which amounts to borrowing at a tax-deductible 3.5% in order to start a business, invest in stocks, or purchase an income property. Over time, such investments should provide superior returns.

This new calculus assumes that you have the means to pay off your mortgage in the first place. Many folks have been downsized into retirement prematurely and may still hold a mortgage because they can’t do anything about it. But for those with a choice, the basic rule of thumb: If you expect to earn more after tax on your investments than you pay after tax on your mortgage, keep the mortgage. However, if you are a conservative investor and keep your money in bank CDs and Treasury bonds, it is probably better to pay off the housing debt.

I imagine most of these Americans who have retired with a mortgage would say they don’t like having a mortgage at retirement. But, they likely have some say in this: they could wait longer to retire to help pay off their mortgage.

What is behind this? It could be a number of reasons. Perhaps Americans moving around more at later ages, leading to more mortgages near retirement age in the first place. Perhaps this is the result of economic issues – people are not as able to pay off mortgages. Homeownership rates haven’t changed all that much since 1989, roughly 2% point difference in recent years (Table 14 here), so something is happening with the nature of mortgages or the age at which mortgages are started.

Baby Boomers can’t retire because they all bought McMansions?

The economic crisis has changed the retirement plans of many. How might have McMansions played a role?

Financial planners on the South Shore and a new national study all point to the same troubled financial picture for people in their late 40s to their early 60s: Many are carrying so much debt from mortgages and student loans they co-signed for their children that retirement is a distant dream.

“They traded in their houses for a McMansion and bought at the higher part of market. They hocked it over 30 years, and they have little equity, if any,” said John Napolitano, CEO of U.S. Wealth Management in Braintree and 2012 president of the Financial Planning Association of Massachusetts…

The study found that the mortgage burden for baby boomers is 25 percent higher than it was for the same age group in 1990.

“In the refinance boom, mortgage brokers convinced (baby boomers) don’t stress out and sold them on a 30-year mortgages,” said Harris. “It was all about cash flow.

The article suggests Baby Boomers are also helping their struggling children. Yet, I wonder about these figures about mortgages and McMansions. This leads to two questions: (1) How many Baby Boomers really bought homes that might be considered McMansions? (2) And how many of them went into excessive debt to purchase this McMansion? For example, I would guess there are a decent number of people underwater on their regular-sized (less than McMansion size) home, particularly in certain housing markets.

This could be a classic case of McMansions serving as a whipping boy or shorthand explanation for the complicated housing market of recent years. When the term McMansion is used here, a certain image comes to mind: a house that is extremely unnecessary for the homeowners. Without seeing the actual numbers, it is hard to know this is exactly what happened but using McMansion certainly helps drive home a particular idea.

Sociologist/time management consultant on the rush of Baby Boomers to new homes

A sociologist and time management consultant offers some thoughts about the upcoming years for many American Baby Boomers:

Jan Yager, a sociologist and time-management consultant, predicts that within the next decade “tens of millions” of baby boomers will sell their current homes and move to different abodes more suitable for retirement.

No matter where they plan to move, boomers who’ve lived in the same home for many years will face the enormous task of sifting through accumulations and upgrading their property for market. And all who try to tackle this project need a strategic plan to manage their time, says Yager, author of “Work Less, Do More,” a time-management book…

If possible, Yager encourages those who need to clear through a vast collection of belongings before selling to allow a full year for this project. But she’s aware that most sellers don’t have this much latitude and that they may need some help to expedite the process.

“It could be a good idea for you to hire a professional organizer,” says Yager, who recommends that home sellers consider seeking a local referral through the National Association of Professional Organizers (www.napo.net).

Four things strike me here:

1. Moving is not made easier after decades of consumption and accumulation. While our houses have gotten larger, our household sizes have gotten smaller, suggesting we need more space for our stuff or like more private space.

2. Is there a lot of potential for contractors and companies to offer remodeling or flipping services to Baby Boomers who don’t have the time to upgrade their own homes? New buyers have their own tastes and there could be a lot of money spent on upgrading homes built during the construction boom after World War II.

3. The potential move of so many Baby Boomers has the potential to have a large effect on demographics and other features of American life such as electoral politics, the housing industry, and advertisers. We’ve already seen some of this in Sunbelt growth in places like Florida and Arizona.

4. Americans have been known for their mobility, their interest in trying out new places and tackling new opportunities. Is this an extension of this spirit, another example of the American can-do spirit? Or more of a recognition that life truly changes as we age?

Baby Boomers want to downsize from McMansions but still want the amenities

Even if more people are interested in smaller houses, will they be willing to forgo the amenities of larger houses? This article suggests the Baby Boomers going to Florida want to go smaller but still want features:

The baby boomers who invented the “McMansion” now say they want to scale down, while still having everything just so. For boomers beginning to trickle into Florida, this means medium-size, maintenance-free retirement homes that still feel spacious, especially when it comes to storing all their stuff.

Builders who study what this generation wants have come up with innovations like “snore rooms” to preserve bedtime peace and “technology centers” to keep them connected. Behind a yen for such marketing frills is a solid demand for costly amenities: spas, fitness centers and dedicated golf cart paths to nearby shopping…

This generation, famous for saying one thing and doing another, promises to keep it up as its members age. Boomers say they intend to downsize, but appear to change their minds once they see what their dollars will buy in a post-recession Florida…

Inside, the standard villa layout has been refined to boost the coolness factor boomers crave. Generous windows, some of them bays and bump-outs, flood the rooms with natural light. Tiny foyers feature the elegant architectural detail of a stately manor, and lead immediately into wide, off-center angles of open-planned space. Pocket doors allow one- or two-bedroom guest suites to close off from the rest of the living area, so grandchildren can nap or play.

Custom options include a cocktail pool, or “spool” — bigger than a spa, smaller than a pool — and a shared office with his-and-her workspaces for boomer couples telecommuting from home.

Several factors are at play here:

1. Housing is relatively cheap in Florida, particularly if retirees are coming from New York, Washington, Boston, and to a lesser extent, Chicago. Perhaps these retirees can’t resist getting the “best deal” when they realize they have the money to buy a little more?

2. What people expect in retirement. It sounds like these retirees expect a certain standard of living when they move to Florida. If they had fewer choices or less money, what would they ask for? Overall, these retirees have the money and the wherewithal to pick up and leave for Florida.

3. This is big business. Companies like Dell Webb need retirees to buy their homes so they are going to offer what people want.

In these cases, it sounds like buying less (particularly in square footage) doesn’t necessarily mean buying less.

McMansions are not retirement vehicles

In a discussion of the number of Americans approaching retirement age, one economist briefly mentions one issue: the expectation some retirees had that their homes would be retirement vehicles may be misguided.

“The fact of the matter is that this aging-but-not-yet-aged segment of the baby boomer class can’t afford to retire,” said David A. Rosenberg, the chief economist of Gluskin Sheff, a Canadian firm, noting that overall household net worth was 15 percent lower than at the prerecession peak. “Dreams of the 5,000-square-foot McMansion being a viable retirement asset have morphed into nightmares of a deflationary ball and chain.”

This is indicative of a larger shift: with the ongoing housing crisis, homeowners can’t expect to cash out their homes in the same way they might have in the late 1990s and early 2000s. McMansions are emblematic of people taking out large mortgages and then having difficulty in paying off their mortgages or moving (“downshifting”) to a cheaper residence because of the reduced value of their homes. Of course, this shift moves housing back to its historic role as a dwelling but not necessarily as a golden nest-egg for retirees.

I would be interested in knowing at which age people tend to purchase McMansions or other large homes. For example, buying a McMansion in one’s 50s might not be the best idea if someone wants to retire at 65. If a homeowner is willing to live in a home for a longer period of time, say more than 10-15 years, then such a purchase might not be as unreasonable as the homeowner can pay off more of their mortgage. Living in a home long-term may not be possible for everyone given changing job circumstances as well as the general mobile nature of American society but there are ways to help ensure one could make more money off of selling a large home.