Top 10 Fears of Older Adults in 2021

More than half of pre-retirement older adults concerned they won’t have enough money

· Published: August 31, 2021

About one in five Baby Boomers are retired, and the pace at which they’re leaving the workforce increased in 2020, potentially due to the COVID-19 pandemic.1 And by the end of the decade, the youngest members of the generation will be over 65.

For many, retirement represents an exciting new era of life. A less hectic pace, no more focusing on work, getting to travel, and spending more time with loved ones are the retirement dreams for millions of Americans. But there are many downsides to aging and retirement, not the least of which are new financial concerns.

We wanted to understand the fears that are most common for older adults, especially those related to issues like retirement savings, medical bills, and other financial issues. The past year has been a harrowing one for millions of people around the world.2 While our research revealed that older adults have been more emotionally resilient than their younger counterparts over the past year, some of their biggest fears may be more within their control than they realize. (Check out our methodology below.)

Key findings:

  • Nearly 1 in 2 older adults’ biggest financial fear was not having enough money saved for retirement, and this rings more true for those between the ages of 55 and 64.
  • 1 in 4 older adults fears they’ll never pay off their existing debt.
  • Forty-five percent of people between 55 and 64 fear having high medical bills, while 39 percent of those over 65, including many on Medicare, have the same fear.

More Fearful Today?

Tens of millions of Americans lost their jobs in 2020 because of the pandemic. At least 21 million and as many as 103 million were infected with COVID-19.3 And nearly 400,000 people died from the virus, according to data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.4

So, it’s understandable for people to be more anxious than they were before the pandemic. Indeed, our research found that about 44 percent of people said they were more anxious today than a year ago. Notably, though, people over 65 were the least likely to be more anxious (31 percent), followed by those between 55 and 64 (38 percent).

Seniors’ Biggest Worries

Older adults’ biggest fear is their loved ones becoming seriously ill, and this was a common thread for all age groups, with at least 56 percent saying serious illness of a loved one was a major fear. The death of a loved one was also a major fear for all age groups, while sociopolitical issues like mass shootings, terrorism, and widespread civil unrest were generally more common for older adults than younger age groups.

After the death or illness of loved ones and political fears, not having sufficient retirement savings was the top fear for older adults. High medical bills ranked 11th and identity theft was 15th among the more than three dozen fears we asked about.

Older women were especially concerned about not having enough money for retirement. Forty-one percent of older men said this was a major fear of theirs compared to 52 percent of older women. There are several potential reasons for such a wide disparity.

For one, women tend to live longer than men, so their retirement periods are generally lengthier. In fact, the average American woman will be retired for nearly 20 years, while the average American man’s retirement period is closer to 16 years.5 Women also tend to earn less than men; the median annual wage for a male worker in the U.S. is about $59,000, while it’s about $48,000 for women. 6

That means not only does the average woman earn less, leaving less money to put into retirement in the first place, but she also has to make her retirement savings last longer. Making matters worse was the workforce crisis brought on by COVID-19, which disproportionately affected women, who were more likely to exit the workforce. An Edward Jones survey of future retirees found that only 41 percent of women who were planning to retire were able to continue putting money away each month, compared to 58 percent of men.7

Financial Fears

Not having enough money saved for retirement was the top financial concern of the older adults in our survey, but it wasn’t the only one. In addition to the specter of high medical bills, which ranked just outside the top 10 fears for seniors, the age group has strong fears of identity theft, stock market fluctuations, not paying off debt, and other fiscal concerns.

All financial fears were more common for those pre-retirement than those over 65, but there were some notable differences. For example, 53 percent of people between 55 and 64 fear not having enough money for retirement compared to just 38 percent for those 65 and up, indicating that those in the younger bracket are feeling more pressure to ensure they’ve sufficiently secured their retirement. The other major gulf between the two groups was in the specter of losing their job; only six percent of those 65 and up fear this, compared to 20 percent of those between 55 and 64.

Top Financial Fears
Percentage of people feeling afraid or very afraid, by age group
Fear 55-64 65+ All 55+
Not having enough money for retirement 53% 38% 46%
High medical bills 45% 39% 42%
Identity theft 39% 33% 36%
Stock market crashing 27% 24% 25%
Never paying off debt 29% 22% 25%
Not being able to pay rent/mortgage 26% 19% 22%
Computers replacing people in the workplace 17% 14% 15%
Losing your job 20% 6% 13%

Dealing with high medical bills was the second-biggest financial concern for older adults, and for those 65 and up, it’s their biggest fear. This is notably in particular because more than 95 percent of people over 65 are covered by Medicare, the federal health insurance program designed to provide affordable coverage for older Americans.8

The fact that medical bills are the biggest fear for those over 65 could signal that they are fearful of requiring services that aren’t covered by Medicare, such as long-term care, most dental care, hearing aids, and routine vision care. The main Medicare program also does not provide prescription drug coverage, and beneficiaries are still responsible for deductibles and copays in many cases. These costs can quickly add up. A private room in a nursing home, for example, costs almost $300 per day.9

Seniors’ third-biggest financial concern was identity theft, and their numbers in this area were similar to younger people’s, which reflects how widespread this issue is. Although everyone is at risk for identity theft, the elderly are especially vulnerable, and identity theft can have financial consequences: the Bureau of Justice found that in cases of identity theft resulting in financial losses, the average loss was $800.10

In addition to older women being more likely than older men to fear not having enough money for retirement, there were some differences along economic lines. Forty-two percent of older adults with household income over $75,000 said they feared not having enough saved for retirement, compared to 54 percent of those making less than $25,000.

That’s not to say that older people in higher income brackets are without financial fears. While 13 percent of older adults making less than $25,000 fear a stock market crash, that figure was 33 percent for those who make between $50,000 and $75,000.

Preparation, Planning Best Prescriptions for Financial Fears

For many people, retirement is just around the corner, and it can feel impossible to improve your situation in such a short time. But there are actionable ways to put yourself in a better financial position as you approach your golden years.

Plan to save for retirement

Nobody knows the future, which is one thing that makes retirement planning a challenge. But doing a thorough audit of your income and spending today can help you predict how much money you’ll need to retire comfortably. We recommend two important retirement planning rules, the 10 Times Rule and the 80 Percent Rule.

  • 10 Times Rule: Plan to save 10 times your pre-retirement income by the time you turn 67. That could mean saving six times your income by age 50 and eight times at age 60, finally reaching 10 times your working income when you hit 67.
  • 80 Percent Rule: To adjust your future budget to account for expenses you won’t have in retirement, figure that you’ll need to replace 80 percent of your current earnings each year.

Don’t forget about Social Security

Factor in what your Social Security earnings might be, but don’t rely on that benefit alone. Generally, people receive 40 percent of their pre-retirement income from Social Security, and cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) are typical, though they don’t necessarily occur every year. In the next year, recipients will see one of the largest jumps. Based on projections by the Senior Citizens League, 2022 is going to see a 6.2 percent increase in benefits, which is substantially higher than the 1.3 percent bump in 2021. 11

Protect yourself against identity theft

While everyone is a potential identity theft target, older adults are a favored target of scammers and fraudsters. Simple steps can keep you from being a victim.

  • Scams can be in the form of phone calls pretending to be a reputable institution or through the backdoor in your Internet history.
  • The most targeted groups are children, social media users, high-income earners, and the elderly.
  • Always sign your power of attorney to someone you trust; these legal stand-ins have access to all of your sensitive information.

Keep your job skills sharp

It’s not guaranteed that your retirement will be spent golfing or vacationing. At some point, you may need to supplement your income through work. No matter how long it’s been since your last job, though, there are programs to help you get back into the workforce.

For example, the Senior Community Service Employment Program provides training and job placement for older Americans. Also, your city and county government agencies may have similar programs.

Keeping your mind active and learning new things is an excellent way to keep your professional skills sharp, but it can also help boost brain function and prevent cognitive decline.12

Additional resources

Here are some additional sources of information for older adults on retirement planning, health, lifestyle, security, debt, and workforce readiness.

Conclusion

After a harrowing year in which we saw massive death and destruction from the COVID-19 pandemic, the fact that U.S. seniors are feeling mentally resilient is undeniably good news. However, given the unknown economic toll that could still result from the virus continuing to spread, older adults’ fears that they won’t have enough money for retirement or will face bankrupting medical bills should be a warning sign to older adults, their families, and policymakers.

Methodology

SeniorLiving conducted an online survey of 2,083 adults about the situations they fear across a variety of topics: sociopolitical, environmental, financial, social, and general. Of the 2,083 respondents, 559 were 55 years or older. Results represent the percentage of people who said they were “afraid” or “very afraid” of each fear.

References