SSRC Retirement Values Survey

Fourth Quarter 2021

After nearly two years of living in a world upended by the Covid-19 pandemic, Americans remain uncertain about its long- and short-term implications on both the global economy and their own personal finances.

The SSRC Retirement Value Survey seeks to explore how Americans think about retirement planning, savings, and Social Security.

In this inaugural survey, we polled 1,511 U.S. adults to capture their outlook on confidence in the U.S. economy, feelings toward retirement, and whether their plans have been altered by the ongoing pandemic.

In the wake of significant political change in Washington, an unstable economy, rising inflation, and worrisome virus variants, Americans may be approaching retirement differently than they had imagined just a few years ago.

The results highlight concerns about the economy going forward. Many reported adjusting their retirement plans, decreased spending, and saving less for retirement overall.

While the pandemic has affected the lives of every person, those at or approaching retirement age may feel particularly unsettled as they grapple with some of the most impactful financial decisions they’ll ever make.

Key Findings

Overall, few Americans saved substantial income for retirement over the pandemic. Two thirds (63%) reported saving less than $1,000 a month, including a quarter (21%) who reported saving zero dollars.

Two-thirds of Americans aged 60 and above (63%) expected inflation to accelerate to 4% or higher over the next twelve months. Twenty-one percent (21%) of this cohort predicted inflation will run 8% or higher, well over today’s historically high level.

Democrats had a rosier view of the economy, inflation expectations, and their households’ financial situations than Republicans, consistent with contemporary surveys that highlight the partisan divide in perceptions of the American economy. Adults with postgraduate degrees, a demographic lately associated with the Democratic Party, were similarly optimistic. However, this red-blue split didn’t extend to expectations about quality of life in retirement.

Quick Stats

  • Fifty-three percent (53%) of U.S. adults rated the current U.S. economy as somewhat or very poor.
  • Fifty-nine percent (59%) expect inflation to accelerate from today’s historically elevated levels over the next year, at a rate of 4% or higher.
  • A quarter (25%) of adults said they’re worse off financially today than 12 months ago.
  • Around 1 in 5 (19%) said they expect to be worse off financially in 12 twelve months than they are today.
  • Twelve percent (12%) of adults said that the Covid-19 pandemic made them push back their retirement plans.A similar percentage (12%) said they were thinking about delaying their Social Security retirement benefits.
  • A fifth (21%) of adults have saved zero dollars for retirement over the last 12 months.
  • Given the current economic climate, nearly half (47%) said they’re decreasing non-essential spending.

Inflation and the Economy

Americans have a dim view of the economy. Consistent with other public polling, the overall view is net-negative, 53% total poor to 24% total good, with 20% neither good nor poor. Democrats (36% good) and those with postgraduate degrees (35% total good) are more optimistic, while Republicans are more negative (68% total poor).

Most Americans (68%) expected inflation over the next 12 months. Republicans (76%) stood out for their greater consensus on this issue.

When asked to estimate an inflation rate for the next 12 months, 59% of adults suggested inflation will run 4% or higher, including 23% suggesting 8% or higher. Respondents were given the latest inflation print available at the time of the survey, the September figure of 3.6% on the calendar year. Contrary to recent statements by Federal Reserve Board chairman Jay Powell and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, these figures suggest an outlook of accelerating inflation for the coming year.

A further 18% suggested there would be inflation this coming year, but equal to or lower than current inflation, at zero to 4%. The remainder (24%) predicted deflation or couldn’t provide an answer.

Most Americans (68%) expected inflation over the next 12 months. Republicans (76%) stood out for their greater consensus on this issue.
When asked to estimate an inflation rate for the next 12 months, 59% of adults suggested inflation will run 4% or higher, including 23% suggesting 8% or higher. Respondents were given the latest inflation print available at the time of the survey, the September figure of 3.6% on the calendar year. Contrary to recent statements by Federal Reserve Board chairman Jay Powell and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, these figures suggest an outlook of accelerating inflation for the coming year.

A further 18% suggested there would be inflation this coming year, but equal to or lower than current inflation, at zero to 4%. The remainder (24%) predicted deflation or couldn’t provide an answer.

Retirement Planning and the Pandemic

Covid-19’s effect on American retirement planning was not localized in particular groups or social classes, but cut across many demographics. The largest group of adults said that the pandemic has not impacted their retirement plans (36%), but 12% reported pushing back their retirement date, 7% reported being forced into retirement, and 6% no longer planned to retire. One in five (20%) couldn’t answer. Statistically, these figures were mostly similar across social groups. Younger (age 30-44, 47%) and better educated adults (college graduate 42%, postgraduate 46%) were more likely to say Covid did not have an impact.

Most Americans struggled to save for retirement over the past 12 months. Sixty-two percent (62%) saved $10,000 or less – so less than $1,000 a month – including 21% who reported saving zero dollars for retirement. Only 18% saved more than $10,000. The latter was localized in highly educated groups, like postgraduates (32% over $10,000).

Household Financial Situations and the Pandemic

About a quarter of adults (23%) said their personal financial situation is better today than it was 12 months ago, and a similar number (25%) said they’re worse off today. About half (48%) said their situation is about the same. There’s a partisan split here as well. Thirty-one percent (31%) of Democrats said they’re better off, while only 19% of Republicans said so.

Forward looking views ran along the same lines. A quarter of adults (25%) said they think they’ll be better off in 12 months than they are today. Twenty-percent (20%) said they’ll be worse off, and half (47%) expected their situations to be about the same. Democrats were more favorable (30% better off, 12% worse off) than Republicans (21% better off, 30% worse off). Those with postgraduate degrees were more optimistic (34% better off, 15% worse off) than high school graduates (21% better off, 21% worse off).

We tested 13 major financial decisions, asking adults if they’d considered them given the current economic climate. Prudent measures like decreasing non-essential spending (47%) and postponing large purposes (35%) were most popular. Some adults reported positive changes like investing more in the stock market (23%), claiming Social Security benefits early (17%), and retiring earlier than planned (5%). Choices that could be considered negative such as delaying Social Security benefits (12%), postponing retirement from work (12%), withdrawing from emergency savings (9%) or retirement savings (8%) were least popular. Given the hot homebuying market and historically low interest rates, 8% thought about selling their homes and 7% thought about refinancing. One in five (18%) couldn’t answer

Quality of Life in Retirement

Only 21% of adults were very confident that they’ll be able to maintain the same quality of life in retirement that they have today. About 2 in 5 (43%) were somewhat confident, and 29% were not at all confident. Those with postgraduate degrees were more likely to be very confident (30%). These topics don’t display the partisan cut present in the perceptions about the economy. Roughly the same percentage of Democrats (23%), Independents (22%) and Republicans (22%) were very confident they’ll maintain their quality of life.

Few Americans are coming out of the pandemic more confident about the future. Only 16% said they’re more confident they’ll maintain their quality of life in retirement compared to 12 months ago. Around half (51%) reported feeling about the same as 12 months ago, and a quarter (27%) said they’re less confident. Here the partisan differences return. A third of Republicans (33%) and Independents (32%) were less confident today than a year ago, but only 22% of Democrats.

Two in five Americans (39%) were not at all confident that they would be able to pay unexpected medical expenses in retirement. Only 16% were very confident, and 38% only somewhat confident.

Retirement Planning

Family and friends (52%) were the most popular source of information for retirement planning, followed by online resources or research one does on one’s own (40%), government sources (34%) and a professional financial planner (23%). Fewer Americans looked to financial experts in the media (21%) and employers (18%). Far less popular were social media (10%), libraries or community centers (8%), and religious leaders or media (3%). Eleven percent (11%) didn’t know. Older adults (age >60) were more likely to trust government resources (45%) and their financial planners (30%) than Americans as a whole.

The largest group of adults (35%) had no plans to move their residences in retirement. Others considered downsizing to a condo or apartment (12%), moving in with children (8%), moving to a retirement or 55+ community (6%), purchasing an RV and traveling (5%) or spending part of the year in a warmer climate (4%). Six percent (6%) reported having already moved. Older Americans (age >60) were more likely to have no plans to move (51%) and to have already moved (14%).

Regardless of respondents’ plans, the most popular reason to consider a move was being closer to family and friends (33%). Many also considered enjoying a better climate (29%), lowering housing costs (27%), lowering home maintenance responsibilities (24%), being closer to quality health care (17%), and lowering their tax burdens in retirement (16%). Fewer Americans worried about falling behind on one’s rent or mortgage (9%). Seven percent (7%) had only done one or more of these, and 23% couldn’t answer.

Working in Retirement

Many Americans feel they could continue to work in retirement if they wanted to. Twenty-seven percent (27%) said they were very confident they could find a job in retirement, 40% were somewhat confident, and 20% were not at all confident.

The largest group of adults plan to work. Roughly half (47%) said they plan to work full time or part time. Seven percent (7%) plan to volunteer. Only 16% said they don’t plan to work at all.

Knowledge of Social Security

The Social Security system continues to confuse many Americans. Only 16% felt very confident in their knowledge of Social Security retirement benefits. Two in five (44%) felt somewhat confident, and 34% not at all confident. Older adults (age >60), since they’ve retired or are making their final arrangements for retirement, had greater confidence than other groups. Only 19% were not at all confident in their knowledge, compared to 45% among the youngest respondents aged 18-29. The largest group of Republicans (42%) were also not at all confident, compared to 26% of Democrats.

A PDF version of the topline results with questionnaire are available for download.