'Life-changing event' of COVID-19 could alter how we work, spend and retire

Wynne Beckmann has worked in retail for 13 years, through the upheaval of the Great Recession a decade ago. But getting furloughed from her job at a Westchester, New York, mall in March felt different. 

"This is an eye-opener. I don't know how much longer I can do retail," says Beckmann, a 32-year-old assistant manager at LOFT, a women’s clothing store. "If things don't change, I'll have to take my marketing degree somewhere else. Maybe Amazon or Glossier, somewhere that puts e-commerce first."

Long after the public health threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic eases, the crisis could spur lasting changes in how Americans work, spend, save and invest, experts say.

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Many like Beckmann are grappling with a future that may mean fewer jobs at stores and restaurants and more technology positions. It's a future in which a generation of shaken young Americans may pull back on spending and older workers may put off retirement to replenish depleted nest eggs. And it's a world in which an entire industry, business travel, could shrivel.

“I think this is a life-changing event,” says Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Analytics. “People are shell-shocked.”

Wynne Beckmann was furloughed from her retail management position at a mall in Westchester County, New York.

In March, most states issued stay-at-home orders and shut down nonessential businesses to curb the spread of the virus, largely shuttering restaurants, malls, theaters and factories. The ripple effects resulted in a record 20.5 million layoffs in April and a 14.7% unemployment rate, highest since the Great Depression and up from a half-century low of 3.5% in February.

As many as 10 million more job cuts are expected in May, pushing unemployment to about 20%, before the economy possibly begins to recover as early as June as states allow businesses to gradually reopen.

But the rebound is likely to be halting. Many Americans remain fearful of contracting the virus until a vaccine is widely available, possibly by the second half of next year. They’re expected to return to restaurants and other gathering spots warily.

The crisis could leave enduring damage. Although about 90% of unemployed workers in April said they were on temporary layoff, some economists worry that many won’t be called back. Small businesses have closed despite a federal program offering them forgivable loans. And many jobless Americans are slashing their spending, compounding the pain for businesses trying to mount a comeback.

After contracting at a 4.8% annual rate in the first quarter, the U.S. economy is forecast to shrink 32.7% in the current one, Moody’s estimates, the worst performance in modern history. Zandi expects the economy to recoup about half of that in the third quarter as the nation climbs out of recession, but then just tread water until it musters a stronger comeback late next year. Still, Zandi doesn’t expect the nation’s gross domestic product, or output, to top its pre-pandemic peak until the second half of 2022.

Here’s what that means for Americans' personal finances: 

Spending and saving

American households have significantly cut their spending and increased their savings during the crisis. They socked away 13.1% of their income in March, up from 8% in February and highest since 1981, government figures show. In April, sales fell 79% at clothing stores, 61% at electronics and appliance stores, and 59% at furniture outlets. Auto sales are a third lower than a year ago.

Much of the drop-off isn’t surprising considering most restaurants and stores were closed. But with 39 million Americans laid off, furloughed or forced to work fewer hours, 30% of adults have seen their household income fall, according to a recent Bankrate survey. Despite squirreling away more of their income, nearly one in five adults have less in emergency savings than before the pandemic. Sixteen percent have taken on more debt.

Michelle Liu, a sales associate at Dillard's department store in Charlotte, North Carolina, saw her hours cut in mid-March when the pandemic hit. Then the 36-year-old, who works at the SouthPark shopping mall, was furloughed within a matter of weeks. 

Thirty percent of adults have seen their household income fall as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a recent Bankrate survey. Despite squirreling away more income, nearly one in five adults have less in emergency savings than before the pandemic. Sixteen percent have taken on more debt.

Liu, who had been stashing money away for school and dental work, struggled to receive unemployment checks for over a month and was forced to pull from her savings to help pay insurance premiums, along with groceries and car repairs for her father.

“It’s been hard. My savings have completely dropped,” Liu says. “Now I have to start from scratch.”

Liu, who was initially furloughed until at least July, has now been asked to return to work. But she's anxious. “I’m worried about being in contact with people," she says. "Anyone could have the virus.”

The financial blow from job losses like Liu's could spawn a more cautious mindset, especially for college grads as well as millennials whose careers were detoured when they entered the workforce during the Great Recession and now face another setback.

“Saving and risk-taking will probably change for a whole generation,” says Andrew Chamberlain, chief economist of Glassdoor, the job posting site. “Young people’s experience of this will be similar to what happened after the Great Depression,” when widespread poverty led to a lifetime of frugalityamong Americans who experienced the hardship.

Baby boomers will also likely rein in spending because many are fast approaching retirement and their 401(k)s have been hurt by the market sell-off since February.

“Boomers are going to have to save a lot more and spend a lot less,” Zandi says. Each $1 drop in their investments on average translates into a 4.5% decrease in spending, he adds.

Consumers also seem leery about venturing back to gathering places, a Harris Poll survey shows. The share of Americans saying they’ll wait a year or more before resuming certain activities is substantial: 27% say they’ll hold off on flying; 18%, going to the movies; and 11%, going out to dinner.

Lilly Rodzen, 31, doesn’t plan to attend movie theaters, malls or gyms anytime soon. 

The Enfield, Connecticut resident, who works as a family support navigator at the Department of Developmental Services in Massachusetts, used to be an avid moviegoer with her husband. Now they opt to spend their free time at drive-in theaters or stream movies at home to socially distance themselves from others. 

“At first, it felt sad because going to the movies was something we loved,” Rodzen says. “Then we figured out we could just rent the same movies at home. It was much easier and cheaper.” 

She plans to keep shopping online instead of going to malls once more businesses reopen. And she doesn’t envision participating in group workout classes in the immediate future. 

“I’m definitely canceling my gym membership. I witnessed people not wiping down equipment even before the pandemic,” Rodzen says. “People are sweating and breathing hard ... I wasn’t thinking about this before, but I am now.”

The recent surge in online deliveries of groceries and other items will ease as the economy reopens, but the longer-term shift from physical stores will accelerate, says Inna Kuznetsova, interim CEO of 1010data, a research and consulting firm.  

The work-at-home movement that has gained traction during the pandemic will convince companies to encourage the practice longer-term as they stagger office hours to avoid contagion, experts say. That means fewer purchases of fancy suits and more casual clothing sales, says Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for NPD Group.


Both restaurants and theaters could see fewer patrons because of less demand and more spacing requirements between tables or seats. Kuznetsova expects growth in dine-in movie theaters, perhaps with some restaurants and theaters merging. That will mean fewer jobs over the long term. At the same time, she foresees a possible renaissance in drive-in movie theaters, providing new jobs.

Zandi expects retailers to install ordering kiosks and other automated systems to increase productivity and better withstand another downturn, a strategy that would further reduce jobs. McKinsey predicts a faster spread of labor-saving automation throughout the economy.

The move to online banking during the shutdown is also likely to endure to some extent, requiring fewer employees at bank branches, a McKinsey study says.

And the business travel industry is likely to shrink now that companies have replaced jam-packed conferences and other events with videoconferencing, says Jed Kolko, chief economist at Indeed, the job search site. That means fewer jobs at airlines, hotels and event planning firms.

Where will jobs grow? Technology positions that make possible the home-based digital and online services, as well as health care as the virus remains a threat and the population ages, Kolko says. Amazon and grocery delivery services will continue as a jobs engine.

Many furloughed restaurant workers could leave the industry before they’re laid off. Since the crisis began, the number of restaurant servers seeking positions in other sectors has topped those looking for food service positions, Glassdoor data show. Their searches have increased sevenfold for jobs at Amazon and fivefold for data entry positions while tripling for warehouse jobs.

Overall, the labor market will be far less favorable to workers than it was before the pandemic, when job openings hovered near record highs and there were more vacancies than workers, Kolko says. That pushed average annual wage gains to about 3%, and gave job candidates, who often juggled multiple offers, more leverage in negotiating salaries. Suddenly, there’s a surplus of workers and that’s likely to limit pay increases, Kolko says.

Retirement planning

Many workers’ retirement savings plans have taken a hit since the crisis began. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index is about 10% below its Feb. 19 peak. In late March, 63% of workers were confident about having enough money to live comfortably in retirement, down from 69% in January, according to a survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute.

Among those laid off or furloughed — or who expected to be in the next six months — just 47% said they were confident in their retirement finances.

Amtrak, La-Z-Boy and Marriott are among companies that have suspended or reduced contributions to retirement plans to conserve cash during the crisis.  About 55% of Americans plan to make changes to their retirement contributions, with most intending to set aside less, Mass Mutual says. And 20% have dipped into their retirement savings because of the effects of COVID-19, according to a Harris Poll survey conducted in mid-May for USA TODAY.

U.S. workers have a median $50,000 in retirement accounts, according to a study by the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies released late last year.

“Retirement preparation was not good before the crisis,” says Richard Johnson, director of the Program on Retirement Policy for the Urban Institute. “It’s certainly worse today.”

Johnson believes many workers will postpone retirement. Even just a one-year delay can yield significant gains in retirement balances and annual increases in Social Security benefits, he says. Forty percent of adults who were planning to retire or reduce hours over the next decade now plan to delay retirement, the Harris Poll survey shows. 

At the same time, he says, most workers over 62 who have lost jobs during the crisis will retire.

“Older people have a very difficult time being re-employed,” Johnson says.

Stock market

The stock market and the broader economy have been at odds with each other since April. While stocks have rebounded more than 35% from their March low, unemployment has soared, ending the longest U.S. expansion on record. 

“I’m dumbfounded by the way the stock market is trading relative to the dire economic data,” says Patrick Healey, founder and president of Caliber Financial Partners. “Everyone is rooting for a vaccine, but it's awfully early to be this optimistic when large parts of the country remain shutdown.”

More than two-thirds of professional investors are skeptical the stock market’s recent gains will last, according to the Bank of America Global Research Fund Manager Survey for May. 

In a sign that investors are avoiding riskier assets like stocks, investment money has continued to flow into money-market and bond funds.

Goldman Sachs expects the S&P 500 index, which is the benchmark for most mutual funds, to reach 3,000 by the end of 2020 compared with 3,036 on May 27 and its low-point of 2,237 during the market sell-off in March. But the broad index could drop nearly 20% from current levels as infection rates outside of New York continue to grow and political uncertainty looms ahead of the U.S. presidential election. 

Digital banking

The pandemic is poised to change how consumers bank, with mobile and no-touch purchasing accelerating.  

More than 45% of Americans with bank accounts have permanently changed how they interact with their financial institution since the pandemic began, according to an annual study from FIS, a provider of financial services technology. About 46% of baby boomers, 39% of Gen Xers and 35% of millennials say they are using new options such as online and mobile to do their banking, the survey showed.

"This crisis is proving that digital banking was a necessity. It makes a big difference if you needed emergency stimulus and had to wait around for a paper check,” says Mladen Vladic, general manager of loyalty at FIS. “We’ll likely see mobile providers and financial institutions work either together or separately to make it more affordable so that smartphones are in the hands of the broader population.”

Meanwhile, about 24% of customers plan to use branches less, or stop visiting completely because of pandemic fears, according to a recent study released by Boston Consulting Group, a global management consulting firm.

The use of paper checks for business-to-business payments has fallen from 60% a decade ago to 40% heading into this year as more companies adopted electronic payments, according to Josh Cyphers, vice president of product and strategy at Nvoicepay, an accounts payable software firm. Companies expect the use of paper checks to drop by  an additional 7% in just the first month of shutdowns beginning in mid-March, or roughly a third of its decline in the past 10 years, he added.

Contributing: Dalvin Brown