A Preview of the Upcoming September 2018 Sightlines Financial Security Special Report

How we are doing as a society after being gifted with an additional 30 plus years of life over the past century? Are we taking full advantage of this gift? Or are we missing the mark, reaching old age ill-prepared and in worse shape than preceding generations?

In 2016, we published our first look at just this question by zooming out to paint a bird’s eye portrait of how well Americans are living in this newfound era of longevity. To do so, we focused on three domains of well-being known to be the building blocks of not just living longer, but living better: financial security, social engagement, and healthy living. Given the rapid, biologically transformative shifts in aging that developed countries have experienced in a mere 100 years, it was a small wonder to us that we observed many trends moving in the wrong direction. Americans report more sedentary behavior today than in generations past and fewer report being socially connected within their communities compared to 20 years ago. The most prominent downward trends, however, emerged in the domain of financial security. This is not surprising given that at the same time we were witnessing unprecedented shifts in human aging, the U.S. underwent unprecedented financial events. In concert, these shifts in U.S. aging and the economy put 20th century born American generations increasingly at risk for being ill-prepared for a lifetime of financial security.

Focusing in on financial outcomes such as buying a home, managing debt, or saving money, we saw major declines in the percentage of Americans taking actions toward a secure financial future. Upon first glance, these downward trends appear especially steep for younger generations and even more exacerbated by other sociodemographic factors such as having less education or being a woman or minority. Unfortunately, instead of making progress toward equality, improvements in longevity coupled with major economic upheaval has only widened existing inequalities as we look to the future for all generations from those entering adulthood all the way through those approaching retirement. In response to these findings, we felt compelled as a research center to rise up and gather scholars within and affiliated with the Stanford Center on Longevity to further investigate these declines in Americans’ financial security. Given our mission at SCL to ensure a long bright future for all Americans, the clear next step was not to wave our arms and cry out “financial crisis!” or “epidemic!” but rather, to think deeply about who is vulnerable and why, to better understand what underlies these patterns, and to identify the points where we see the biggest differences emerge, all so that we can do something about it.

Too many times, we see alarming reporting of studies, and as a country we want to act immediately to prevent further damage. However, hasty action can lead us to overlook an underserved group or miss a key mechanism with the power to have scalable impact. To avoid this, we designed the research in the upcoming report with the goal of digging deeper into the research while taking care to be open to multiple interpretations of the original findings from multiple perspectives. A unique position of SCL is our intersection of academic scholars, industry leaders, policymakers, journalists, and any aging human with a thought on how to live longer and live better. All points of view were well considered in this special report doing our best not to privilege or bias any one of them. In the end, although the research questions were largely shaped by these discussions, we try to let the data speak for itself. I cannot emphasize enough that the point of our work is to elucidate and help navigate promising pathways to change so we can stop — and even reverse these ill-fated trajectories and evade a looming crisis of old age.

While I cannot give away the punchline here, I can say that like with any good program of research, we inevitably raise more questions than answers. I can also say that some findings won’t be a surprise and contribute to already mounting evidence in support of a what many would call an obvious effect or explanation. At the same time, I can also say I was taken aback by other findings that were earnestly unexpected or at the very least previously underreported -some of which still keep me up at night asking how on earth do we still see this happening in 2018?! There has been a lot of speculation in the media for example, as to why Millennials are not buying homes, but not as much empirical data to test these claims. We have a wealth of data on Boomer retirement preparedness (or lack thereof), but given the sheer volume of this generation and the vast differences in early versus later born Boomers, less understood is how subgroups of this generation are faring compared to their parents’ generations. On the other hand, while we do know a lot about gender gaps in financial security, there are key pieces to this puzzle needed to understand why so many interventions are not yet closing those gaps. Using the Sightlines framework to organize findings by historical and generational variation may help to illuminate what we know in each of these arenas.

In the current report, which will be made publicly available in September 2018, we examine both major challenges to ensuring financial security as people live longer, as well as special considerations that offer a more promising outlook with a special focus on the aforementioned topics. Below is a preview of the upcoming report outline. As a sign of the times, the report will be an eco-friendly online PDF available on our website. Thanks to the support of our lead Sightlines financial security report sponsor, Bank of America, and our ongoing Sightlines sponsors, XX, the report will be publicly available in September 2018. Also thanks to their support, the PDF report will have companion webpage pieces with expert commentaries and interactive features including data visualization and survey tools. We will continuously update the website throughout the following year with new commentary and interviews so that we can keep the conversation about financial security in long life going. It’s one thing to point out the problems we’ve unearthed, but if we really expect to make a difference, we can’t let the conversation stall. So I invite all of you to read the report, engage with the website, and think about how to take action going forward -anywhere from where we go as a long-lived society from here? To what can I do today to improve my own financial future? The beauty of the Sightlines project is it provides a perspective on how to intervene with anyone, anywhere, at anytime. It’s never too early or too late to start taking about taking financial steps to living long and living well.

Sightlines Special Report
In this report, we build upon the overall Sightlines project to paint a picture of how well all Americans are doing on the road to living long by focusing in on variation and predictors of financial security. To do so, we report on the latest nationally representative survey data from multiple sources including Survey of Consumer Finance, Rand American Life Panel, and the Health and Retirement Study. Taking into account compelling financial security findings from the original report and the most topical national conversations, we chose to pay special attention to home ownership, retirement adequacy, and the financial decision making through the lens of gender disparities. In addition to these three major topics, we update our analysis of generational differences across all of the Sightlines financial security metrics emphasizing sociodemographic variation, preview exciting, new research collaborations, describe new metrics not included in the original report, and selectively describe potential solutions such as large-scale financial education programs and promising behavioral interventions.

1. Building Financial Security in Early and Middle Adulthood

  • Financial Security Update: Cash Flow in the U.S. across Generations from 2001 to 2016
  • In-depth Report: Generational Shifts in Life Course Trajectories: Implications for Homeownership by Age 30
  • Special Feature: Food Affordability in King County, Washington
  • Solution: Increase Financial Literacy

2. Managing Financial Security in Later Adulthood

  • Financial Security Update: Growing Assets in the U.S. across Generations from 2001 to 2016
  • In-depth Report: Retirement Crisis or Re-invention: Distinctions among Baby Boomer and Silent Generation’s Financial Debt and Wealth
  • Special Feature: California Public School Teachers Attitudes about Retirement
  • Solution: Rethinking Retirement

3. Ensuring Financial Security across the Life Course

  • Financial Security Update: Protection in the U.S. across Generations from 2001 to 2016
  • In-depth Report: Individual Pathways to Financial Well-being through the Gender Gap Lens
  • Special Feature: Fraud Vulnerability in America
  • Solution: Gaining Financial Confidence

The current report was designed to focus in on some of the most compelling findings observed in our original analysis, including more comprehensive descriptions of variations in financial security outcomes for different segments of the American population, original research further investigating factors associated with financial security using a generational lens, and a focus on the most prominent topics in the U.S. affecting Americans today including home ownership and retirement preparedness. By synthesizing such research, this report can be utilized to help influencers better understand national patterns of financial outcomes and guide informed conversations, policies, and practices around optimizing long lives across the U.S. population.

This article was recommended by Tamara Sims, PhD, Research Scientist and Director of the Sightlines Project.