6 Surprising Facts About Retirement

Many aren’t saving what they should, but it's not all bad news

Part Of
Roth IRAs: The Complete Guide
Explore The Guide

Retirement is a topic that regularly makes headlines, and not all of them are encouraging. Americans are living longer than ever before. However, if you assume most people are saving more to prepare for their longer-term needs, you’d be mistaken. Here are some of the more startling truths about retirement in the U.S.

Key Takeaways

  • The post-career phase of your life could last a quarter-century or more.
  • Social Security benefits alone are likely not enough to ensure a comfortable retirement.
  • Many Americans have little to no retirement plan savings.
  • Medicare will not cover the costs of assisted living or a nursing home.
  • To make sure you’re saving enough, try to max out contributions to your employer-sponsored plans and IRAs.

1. It Could Last Longer Than You Think

In a 2021 survey, the actual mean retirement age for retirees is 62 and according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention the current life expectancy is nearly 79. However, for many, retirement will last much longer than 17 years. The numbers are skewed by the number of individuals who die relatively young.

Consider this—a 65-year-old woman has a 50% chance of making it to age 86.5 and a 65-year-old man has a 50% chance of reaching age 84 (as of January 2022). That’s why younger workers need to plan for two decades or more of income in retirement. And for current retirees, an ultra-conservative portfolio composed solely of bonds may not provide enough growth, especially with interest rates still near historic lows.

“While portfolios exclusively or primarily composed of bonds may seem safer than stocks with potentially lower downside risk short term, historically they have provided significantly lower overall returns long term. This can be cause for great concern in regard to keeping up with inflation or meeting desired asset projections for satisfactory income later,” says Daniel P. Schutte, MBA, founder and financial advisor, Schutte Financial, Denver, Colo.

“A broadly diversified retirement portfolio consisting of 40% large-cap U.S. stocks, 25% small-cap U.S. stocks, 25% U.S. bonds, and 10% cash has had a 98% success rate in lasting at least 35 years during retirement before running out of money. Diversification is a lifelong investing guideline—stay diversified in retirement too,” says Craig Israelsen, Ph.D., designer of the 7Twelve Portfolio, of Springville, Utah.

2. Social Security Falls Short

Most of the time, Social Security payments alone won’t be nearly enough to hit that target.

For 2022, the average monthly Social Security benefit for retired workers is expected to be $1,657, which comes out to $19,884 per year.

“One of the big issues with Social Security is that it only provides a similar standard of living for those in the lowest quartile of income earners in the U.S. In other words, unless your household is earning less than $30,000 a year, most people will need to rely on some sort of personal savings in order to maintain their current standard of living in retirement,” says Mark Hebner, founder and president of Index Fund Advisors Inc., of Irvine, Calif., and author of Index Funds: The 12-Step Recovery Program for Active Investors.

This is where starting to save early can help, in particular, using tax-advantaged vehicles such as an individual retirement account (IRA) or 401(k) plans.

3. Americans Are Way Behind on Savings

“Between two stock market crashes and not saving enough in the last 16 years, coupled with increased expenses and inflation, Americans are very far behind on saving for retirement,” says Carlos Dias Jr., founder and managing partner of Dias Wealth LLC in Lake Mary, Fla.

As the American workplace turns away from pension plans, the onus is increasingly on workers to secure their own retirements. A PricewaterhouseCoopers report shows that the median retirement savings for individuals ages 55 to 64 is $120,000. For those 35 to 44 years old, it's $37,000.

4. Many Still Lack a Retirement Plan

It used to be that you could spend most of your career at one company and count on a pension once you reached retirement. The median private pension annual benefit amount is now only $10,788.

Unfortunately, many Americans aren’t replacing those pensions with a defined-contribution plan such as a 401(k). In 2020 there were 60 million active 401(k) participants, while the workforce includes 162 million people—meaning roughly 37% of individuals are actively participating in a 401(k).

$126,083

The size of the average defined-contribution plan balance in the third quarter of 2021.

5. Staying in the Workforce

Given the fact that so many Americans are behind in their savings, perhaps it’s not surprising that many remain in the workforce well after reaching Social Security eligibility. However, one key issue for many older people who are interested in working to supplement their Social Security is that they might not be able to find a job—notably after the Coronavirus pandemic. The average unemployment rate for those 65 years old and older was 7.5% in 2020—the highest ever. Individuals aged 65 and older with a job fell 12.9% from February 2020 to February 2021.

6. Medicare Won’t Cover Assisted Living

Government data reveals that nearly 70% of individuals who reach age 65 will need long-term care at some point. The median cost of an assisted living facility was $4,300 a month as of 2020, according to Genworth Financial Inc. It was more than twice that for a private room in a nursing home.

What many seniors don’t realize is that Medicare doesn’t pay for most long-term care costs. It only covers 100 days of care at a skilled nursing facility, and only if it was preceded by a hospital stay of three days or more. 

If you’re not sitting on a sizable nest egg, that’s a good reason to start thinking about long-term care insurance in your late 50s or early 60s.

How to Get on Track

Depending on how much progress you’ve made toward your own retirement goals, you may be feeling better or worse about where you stand. If you’re not quite as close to your target as you’d like to be, taking a second look at your retirement plan can help you pinpoint the gaps.

Start by trying to figure out just how much you’ll need for retirement, based on your current spending and the standard of living you want. Then look at your savings balances and how much you’re saving regularly.

Then consider your investments. Are you maxing out contributions to your 401(k) or 403(b)—if you have one? And if you do, are saving enough to get the company match? If not, think about increasing your contributions.

If you don’t have a retirement plan offered through your job, or you’re fortunate enough to max out your plan each year, you can supplement your savings with an IRA. For 2021 and 2022, you can contribute up to $6,000 a year to an IRA, or $7,000 if you’re age 50 or older.

Article Sources

Investopedia requires writers to use primary sources to support their work. These include white papers, government data, original reporting, and interviews with industry experts. We also reference original research from other reputable publishers where appropriate. You can learn more about the standards we follow in producing accurate, unbiased content in our editorial policy.
  1. Medicare. "How Can I Pay For Nursing Home Care?" Accessed Jan. 10, 2022."

  2. Gallup. "U.S. Retirees' Experience Differs From Nonretirees' Outlook." Accessed Jan. 10, 2022.

  3. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. "Life Expectancy." Accessed Jan. 10, 2022.

  4. Social Security Administration. "Benefits Planner: Life Expectancy." Accessed Jan. 10, 2022.

  5. Social Security Administration. "2022 Social Security Changes," Page 2. Accessed Jan. 10, 2022.

  6. PricewaterhouseCoopers. "Retirement in America: Time to Rethink and Retool," Page 4. Accessed Jan. 10, 2022.

  7. Pension Rights Center. "Median Pension Benefit." Accessed Jan. 10, 2022.

  8. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Table A-1. Employment Status of the Civilian Population by Sex and Age." Accessed Jan. 10, 2022.

  9. Investment Company Institute. "Frequently Asked Questions About 401(k) Plan Research." Accessed Jan. 10, 2022.

  10. Fidelity. "Building Financial Futures," Page 8. Accessed Jan. 10, 2022.

  11. Urban Institute. "Will Older Adults Return to the Workforce?" Accessed Jan. 10, 2022.

  12. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "How Much Care Will You Need?" Accessed Jan. 10, 2022.

  13. Genworth Financial. "Cost of Care Survey." Accessed Jan. 10, 2022.

  14. Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services. "Skilled Nursing Facility Care." Accessed Jan. 10, 2022.

  15. Internal Revenue Service. “2022 Limitations Adjusted as Provided in Section 415(d), etc.” Accessed Jan. 10, 2022.