Is There a Retirement Crisis in 2024?

By Mark D. Roberts

May 29, 2024


My grandparents on my father’s side worked for decades in higher education. When they retired in the late 1960s, they left the frigid winters of Connecticut for the year-round warmth of Southern California, renting a sunny apartment less than a mile from the beach. Their pensions plus Social Security enabled them to live modestly but comfortably for the last two decades of their lives. In retirement, my grandparents enjoyed a quiet life: playing cards, reading, serving at church, traveling, baking, and spending time with friends and family. Theirs was the stereotypical middle-class life in retirement, the kind of life millions of Americans hoped to enjoy as their reward for decades of hard work.

Millions of us still expect the kind of retirement my grandparents experienced. Some will achieve it. But increasingly, what we once believed to be common about retirement is becoming uncommon. The standard narrative, which, in actuality, is only decades old, is now becoming less standard. For better or for worse, retirement in America is changing.

But increasingly, what we once believed to be common about retirement is becoming uncommon.

A Retirement Crisis

Many call this a crisis. According to CNN, “Retirement crisis looms as Americans struggle to save.” A 2024 survey by the National Institute on Retirement Security found: “When asked if the nation faces a retirement crisis, 79 percent of Americans agree there indeed is a retirement crisis, up from 67 percent in 2020.”

When people refer to a retirement crisis, they usually point to the fact that record numbers of people are retiring without adequate financial resources. In February 2024, the National Council on Aging found that “millions of older adults [are] struggling to meet their monthly expenses.” According to Robert Shapiro, a former U.S. Undersecretary of Commerce, “America has never seen so many people reaching retirement age over a short period, and well over half of them will find it challenging to meet their needs through their retirements, let alone maintain their current standard of living.”

Without minimizing the economic challenges of retirement, I would suggest that our retirement crisis isn’t only financial. It’s actually more complex, having to do with changing circumstances, changing lifespans, changing desires, changing obstacles, and a changing sense of what makes life worth living as we get older.

Retirement in the News

Recently, I have been impressed by an abundance of articles focusing on some aspect of retirement. These articles (and one book) show that our retirement crisis isn’t only financial. I’d like to share with you some of the main points from my reading in the first half of 2024. (If you’d like more detail, check out the article from my Substack, “The Changing Reality of Retirement in 2024: Summary of Research,” link.)

  • “The ground is shifting when it comes to retirement.” – “Americans are experiencing increased financial pressures and low levels of retirement savings.” (Retirement Insecurity 2024: Americans’ Views of Retirement, from the National Institute on Retirement Security, Feb 2024, link.)
  • “People aged 75+ will constitute the fastest-growing age band in the civilian workforce between now and 2023!” – In part, this reflects the fact that “In the last 100 years, the 65+ age group has grown five times faster than the rest of the population.” (“The fastest-growing segment of the workforce? Not Gen Z,” Mercer, April 11, 2024, link.)
  • “Workers of all kinds and levels say they are going to defer retirement.” – This is “especially true of striving and hard-driving institutional leaders.” (“The C.E.O.s Who Just Won’t Quit,” New York Times, May 9, 2024, link.)
  • “About one-quarter of U.S. adults age 50 and older who are not yet retired say they expect to never retire.” – “About 1 in 4 US Adults 50 and older who aren’t yet retired expect to never retire, AARP study finds,” AP, April 24, 2024, link.
  • “47% of Americans say they think about retirement as a slow transition away from full-time work.” – Plus, “68% say people should expect to work later in life in order to have enough money to retire.” (“Nearly half of Americans expect slow transition into retirement,” Allianz Life, May 7, 2024, link.)
  • “The definition of retirement may be shifting to mean more than simply an end to working. A majority of pre-retirees view retirement as either shifting focus to ‘a new type of work or fulfilling purpose’ or ‘working less.’” – 2024 MassMutual Retirement Happiness Study, link.
  • “The average retirement age in the United States is 61 to 64 years old (depending on the data you use). . . . One thing is certain: The average retirement age is up from 57 in the 1990s.” – “What’s the Average Retirement Age? Factors, Trends, and Variations,” Investopedia, March 13, 2024, link.
  • “I do think it’s a bit crazy that our anchor idea for the right retirement age — 65 years old — originates from the time of the Ottoman Empire.” – “A solution to the retirement crisis? Americans should work for more years, BlackRock CEO says,” CBS News, April 18, 2024, link.
  • “Half of retirees surveyed . . . said they retired earlier than planned.” – Moreover, nearly 70% point to reasons outside of their control, such as health issues, layoffs, or the need to provide care for family members.” (“‘Zapped time and time again’: More workers say they expect to retire at 65, but research shows they may be overly optimistic about how long they can remain in the workforce,” apmoneywise, May 4, 2024, link.)
  • Married couples are struggling in retirement. Joe and Barbara “had time; they had money, they had leisure. They also had a problem: They were driving each other mad.” – “These Couples Survived a Lot. Then Came Retirement,” New York Times, May 5, 2024, link.
  • “Retiring from work is not right for everybody—in fact, for a solid majority of people, it can turn out to be a seriously bad idea. . . . [F]or many people, particularly those who enjoyed and were effective in their work lives, retirement is a stage of life filled with losses from which it can be difficult, if not impossible, to recover” (p. 22-23). – Unretired: How Highly Effective People Live Happily Ever After, Mark S. Walton, Feb 2024, link.

The Multifaceted Retirement Crisis

As we scan these excerpts from recent publications, we recognize that there will still be people who experience retirement in the mode of my grandparents. But increasingly, this mode is outmoded.

Millions of Americans will not have the financial capacity to retire at 65 and never work again. They will need paid work beyond 65. Yet many of those who continue to work as they get older do so, not because of financial necessity, but because of the meaning they get from their work. It may be time to stop thinking and talking about 65 as the “normal retirement age.”

Moreover, when people think about retirement, increasingly they do not envision a life without work. They may leave full-time work but continue to work in a variety of ways, including part-time employment, entrepreneurial endeavors, or unpaid volunteer work. A few months ago, my Uber driver was a “retired” man in his late 60s. When I asked him why he was driving for Uber, he explained that he didn’t need the money. Rather, he enjoyed meeting lots of people and helping them get to their destinations.

Without minimizing the economic challenges of retirement, I would suggest that our retirement crisis isn’t only financial. It’s actually more complex, having to do with changing circumstances, changing lifespans, changing desires, changing obstacles, and a changing sense of what makes life worth living as we get older.

Recent writing on retirement demonstrates that, for many, retiring is more stressful and less rewarding than anticipated. Retirees experience more painfully than anticipated losses of personal identity, sense of purpose, daily structure, and friends/social network (Unretired, p. 23). Many marriages suffer in retirement. Some of these marriages survive or even learn to thrive. But, as the New York Times reports, “Although it’s still rare for married couples over 60 to break up, the divorce rate is rising faster in that age group than in any other.”

An Opportunity for the Church

I would suggest that the multifaceted retirement crisis is a magnificent opportunity for the church. We who follow Jesus have the chance to work together on this crisis. We can help both our congregants and our neighbors discover deeper meaning in life, including both work and retirement. We can provide a context for pre-retirees to think wisely about all aspects of their future. We can help each other as we age to clarify our purpose as disciples of Jesus, a calling from which we don’t retire. And we can do all of this in a community shaped by God’s grace and deep mutual commitment.

The church in 2024 can begin to do all of these things and so much more. The question is: Will we?

Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders,...

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