Anastasia Chipelski has not given retirement much thought. In part that's because, at 31, she has only recently found full-time work pursuing her passion – journalism.
There's another reason, however, that Ms. Chipelski – who has a degree in cultural studies – isn't planning for life after work: She believes she may never be able to retire.
"When I try to conceptually envision what my retirement looks like, it's just not something that I entirely expect to be able to do," said the managing editor of the University of Winnipeg's student newspaper, The Uniter.
She is likely not on her own in this belief: Record level debt-loads, increasing job insecurity, falling pension participation and insufficient savings are making the retirement mountain much more difficult for Canadians – particularly younger generations – to ascend.
For Canadians such as Ms. Chipelski – young, ambitious and well educated – "work till you drop" is becoming the new retirement plan.
It's an alarming phenomenon brought on by a number of challenges faced by generations that follow the baby boomers, certified financial planner Elaine Kelly says.
"When it comes to younger people I work with, I'm very concerned about the economy; about unpaid internships, and about high taxes that even people making $20,000 a year pay," said the adviser with Manulife Securities in St. Catharines, Ont.
"I'm also very concerned about the high cost of housing and what's now called the 'fragile workplace.'"
All working Canadians are facing an increasingly tough slog to retire, says David Macdonald, senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, but the going is especially tough for millennials.
Mr. Macdonald says young workers are generally more saddled with debt at the start of their careers because postsecondary education costs are higher than previous generations.
"Tuition levels are dramatically higher today than they were in the early 1990s, when we started to see broad deregulation in most provinces," he said. "What that means is higher student debt for Canadians in their 20s compared with two decades ago."
Debt often prevents them from getting an early start on investing for retirement, crucial to accumulating wealth. "A dollar saved in your 20s is worth much more than a dollar saved in your 50s because there's the benefit of compound interest," Mr. Macdonald said.
Yet, even before many millennials can save for retirement, they need a place to live – and that often involves buying a first home (which is arguably also progressively more out of reach).
Low interest rates have been a double-edged sword, Mr. Macdonald says.
Falling rates have made borrowing cheaper, but lower mortgage rates have also increased demand, pushing up prices.
"And the people who are getting hammered on this are those in their 30s who are just entering the housing market," Mr. Macdonald said.
"They have to buy a home at dramatically higher valuations than generations a decade or two earlier."
The effect is many new homeowners have more income going toward the mortgage and less for saving.
But their cash flow is also generally less reliable because job opportunities are more precarious.
"If you look at flows of income, the nature of work has changed," Mr. Macdonald said.
More Canadians are self-employed with Statistics Canada data revealing the numbers have been steadily rising for decades reaching 2.7 million in 2015 – more than 10 per cent of employed Canadians.
This poses a number of problems for retirement outcomes.
Self-employed workers typically earn less, Mr. Macdonald says. Their contributions to the Canada Pension Plan are lower than average and less likely to receive the maximum retirement benefit. Equally important, they have no access to workplace pension plans.
And those who do find full-time employment are often members of defined-contribution or group RRSP plans, which are subject to market risk and high fee structures, Mr. Macdonald says. This stands in contrast to defined-benefit plans – mostly the domain of the public sector – which guarantee an income for the duration of retirement regardless of investment performance, he adds.
"That's why discussion around expanding CPP in Ontario is a good example of how the public sector can step in to fill that withdrawal of the private sector in terms of providing better pension income."
More than anything else, full-time, well-paid work and access to pensions are essential to a good retirement outlook, Mr. Macdonald says.
The combination of the two certainly turned around a bleak picture for an acquaintance of Ms. Chipelski. Prior to getting full-time work as a tenure-track professor, Bronwyn Dobchuk-Land – who has a PhD in sociology – had resigned herself to a lifetime of work.
"I felt that I would never retire," said the 29-year-old, adding securing full-time work is "like winning the lottery because hundreds of people are applying for these jobs."
Still, many of her peers face dimmer prospects.
"People who I went to school with, and myself until this year, had just incorporated job insecurity into our ideas about the future."
For Ms. Chipelski – even with her full-time job – retirement is likely an unachievable goal because saving remains a luxury she can't afford. "Day-to-day survival is a little more pressing."
In the meantime, she is investing in retirement a different way – one that doesn't involve money.
"I invest in my health – it's not financial but it's an asset to me."
At least with good health, Ms. Chipelski says, she can keep working as long as required.
Even among boomers, this strategy is becoming more common, Ms. Kelly says.
"But the problem is there are also a lot of people in their 50s and early 60s who are diagnosed with a heart problem or cancer – or they simply don't have the energy to handle the workloads and stress any more, so this plan does not always work," she said. "It's not always possible to work till you drop."
Retirement savings advice for low-income earners:
Financial planner Elaine Kelly suggests rather than contributing to an RRSP, low-income earners should consider the TFSA instead.
"If you're in a position where you earn a high income now and you expect a lower income in retirement, then RRSPs will work perfectly for you, but if you're in a fragile employment situation and you're not making a lot – $20,000 to $30,000 – then contributing to a TFSA can make more sense than an RRSP."
Withdrawals from RRSPs are taxable income, which can reduce benefits such as the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS). "The Guaranteed Income Supplement is income-tested, but the TFSA withdrawals are not considered income," she said. "So from a GIS perspective, taking money out of a TFSA would be better than taking money out an RRSP."