Dear Helaine: I'm a 63-year-old corporate executive and was unexpectedly offered an early retirement package as part of a corporate downsizing. The package is OK, but nowhere near enough to carry my wife and myself through the next few years. I don't want to file for Social Security till my late 60s, so I can get the full benefit.
I can turn it down, but then I could be let go with a much smaller package if there are layoffs. I don't have a pension, but I have a substantial amount in my 401(k). I was counting on having another four or five years to beef up my savings between contributions and appreciation. Now what do I do? Who's going to hire me at a salary anywhere near what I was making? How can I recover from this? -- Holding On
Dear Holding On: I am sorry to hear this but not terribly surprised. All too many people -- perhaps a majority -- over the age of 50 are pushed from their workplace before they are ready to retire. Few are able to fully compensate for the financial damage that results.
There is no magic formula for making up for losing your salary before you expected it to happen. Moreover, age discrimination is not just an unfortunate reality, but also one that's extremely difficult to combat because it is very hard to prove, thanks to a Supreme Court ruling in 2009. Legislation to fix that has been stalled in Congress ever since.
So what should you do now? First, don't make any decisions about taking that early retirement package without consulting a lawyer who can explain the contract to you -- as well as let you know if you have a possible legal claim. You should also reach out to a financial planner who can advise on your financial situation.
It's quite possible there is room to negotiate a better package -- the first offer is often just that. But it's likely you will need to make lifestyle adjustments. Could you find a position that will pay you a portion of your current salary? How can you scale back without feeling too deprived? Could you make do with a smaller home, or move to a less-expensive community?
I can't answer these questions for you. Only you can do that. One other suggestion: You might consider reaching out to your elected representatives in Washington and suggest they support the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act.
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