Talent   //   February 20, 2024

‘I’m never going to be able to retire:’ Gen Xers cast doubts on life after work

Nina McCollum, 55, was laid off last March from Glassdoor. It was her third career layoff. 

She was able to jump back into freelancing as a professional content writer with more than 20 years of experience, but any dreams of retiring faded fast. It wasn’t a new reality for her though, she had long suspected retirement would be out of reach. For most of her career, she didn’t have access to an employer-sponsored retirement plan, except for the year she was at Glassdoor. Before that, and again today, it is up to her.

“I couldn’t afford to do it on my own,” said McCollum. “Like a lot of people, I was living paycheck to paycheck. I mean, I’m not even making enough to pay the bills. I’m sustaining myself on what I’ve been able to save. I’m never going to be able to retire.”

Gen Xers, those aged between 44 and 59 years old, were taught by their boomer parents to be loyal, show up, do their best, and they would see success and earn a pension that would promise a comfortable life without work after the age of 65. But, that wasn’t the reality for this generation, as Gen X has ended up at the forefront of an evolving workforce for whom job hopping, uncertainty, and changing economics, are the new constant.  

Help from employers

Gen X is the least confident of all age groups when it comes to retirement readiness, according to a Betterment at Work survey of 1,000 full-time U.S. workers. Over half of Gen X workers would also be enticed to leave their current employer for one that offers better financial benefits, showing they’re looking for this support in advance of retirement.

“There are two primary concerns that they’re facing,” said Harlyn Croland, head of business operations and strategy at Betterment at Work. “One is do they have access to the right employer-sponsored financial benefits or just benefits in general that are going to help them meet their needs in the future when the future is very unknown. The second is ‘am I saving enough money? How do I ensure that I’m saving enough while meeting my particular needs of today?’”

Betterment at Work’s research found that Gen Xers want a 401k, preferably with an employer match, and employer-sponsored emergency funds. Half of Gen X workers with access to such emergency funds, dipped into them last year, the survey found. What were the emergencies? Thirty-eight percent used their emergency fund to pay their rent or bills, 28% used it for medical expenses, and 41% for home or car repairs. 

“With half of Gen Xers tapping their employer-sponsored emergency funds, it’s just indicating that this is coming to the forefront.”
Harlyn Croland, head of business operations and strategy at Betterment at Work.

With Gen X feeling uncertain about their retirement plans, employers have an opportunity to step up and support this generation where they can. Out of the 1,000 surveyed, only 17% reported having access to a financial advisor through their employer and only 47% of employers offered a 401k match. Only 8% offer employer-sponsored emergency funds.

“With half of Gen Xers tapping their employer-sponsored emergency funds, it’s just indicating that this is coming to the forefront,” said Croland. “In previous surveys, we found that it’s always been on the list of wants, but it jumped to the number three spot this past year, which is really indicative of something that employers want to think about offering or finding some sort of alternative that will meet his particular need.”

Caregiver support

Aside from those benefits, there are also other ways that employers can help support this generation as they prepare for retirement. Even for McCollum, she is a part-time caregiver for her child and her elderly mother who has dementia. What would it look like if she was able to work for a place that offered family caregiver support?

“At a time when Gen X is already thinking about their retirement future but is still in their peak earning years, they are often sandwiched between caring for their kids and their aging loved ones,” said Dave Jacobs, co-founder and co-CEO of Homethrive, a caregiving benefits platform. 

According to Jacobs, people can spend more than $7,000 each year on out-of-pocket expenses related to caregiving, all while having to take unpaid leave, defer promotions, or even leave their jobs because of caregiving responsibilities. 

“Employers are beginning to recognize just how important support for the ‘sandwich generation’ is,” said Jacobs. “This means going beyond basic retirement benefits to holistic financial wellness programs and family caregiver support.”

Searching for security as a Gen Xer

The aforementioned benefits are all for when you have a secure job. With layoffs rampant, more Gen Xers are finding themselves in situations they would have never imagined, leaving their plans ruffled. In some cases, that’s finding themselves in the same situation as McCollum, who is trying to make ends meet while also keeping an eye out for potential full-time jobs that want to pay her to “kick ass every day.” 

When you are above a certain age, that can be a battle. While more employers understand that the retirement age is being pushed back and that older employees can really help a workforce, there is still ageism within some hiring practices. McCollum has written about it in detail for the Huffington Post, describing how some people told her she was “too experienced” for certain jobs, while others just ghosted her completely.

“I talk about what I can control, which is my reaction to the system and what I can do myself to make money with the knowledge that this is the system that I live in.”
Nina McCollum, a Gen Xer who was recently laid off.

“They are often seen as overqualified for a job,” said Jill Eubank, executive vp of business professionals at staffing agency Randstad, and a Gen Xer herself. “We try to present our candidates and talk through transferable skills and how what they did could transfer. It’s part of the education process with our clients.”

According to Randstad’s recent WorkMonitor report, which surveyed 27,000 workers across the globe, only 50% of workers thought they would retire before the age of 65. That’s down from their 2023 report that found 61% of workers thought they would retire before 65. “This generation is rethinking retirement,” said Eubank.

But what they do care about is training and development, with 70% of Gen Xers considering it “very important” in their current job search and future job searches. 

“It’s ‘How am I going to learn? How am I going to grow in this role?,’” said Eubank. “Their career aspirations continue to soar. When you think about the baby boomers, at some point that started to wind down. But with Gen X, you’re continuing to see that as being a very important aspect to their career.”

And McCollum is one of those Gen Xers who wants to continue to excel. She says that for now, she focuses on what she can control, like figuring out how to bring money in while also reducing her spending wherever she can. 

“People find that article and reach out to me and ask ‘what am I doing wrong?,’” said McCollum. “I tell people ‘what if you never, ever were able to get another full-time paying job even close to what you were making with the benefits package you need again? How would you survive? Start doing that.’”

She knows that she doesn’t want to end up in a situation where her child has to support her. “But we’re not going to change corporate America or ageism that has been around for a very long time,” said McCollum. “I talk about what I can control, which is my reaction to the system, and what I can do myself to make money with the knowledge that this is the system that I live in.”