Spotlight: Olivia S. Mitchell

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As one of America’s leading researchers on finance, employee benefit plans and retirement economics, Olivia S. Mitchell was tapped by the National Institute on Aging, or NIA, to collaborate on one of the most comprehensive studies on aging ever undertaken.

At a glance
Name: Olivia S. Mitchell, Ph.D.
Hometown: Bala Cynwyd, Pa.
Education: Master’s (1976) and doctorate (1978) degrees in economics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Bachelor’s degree (1974) in economics from Harvard University.
Career highlights:
  • Professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania; executive director of the school’s Pension Research Council; director of the school’s Boettner Center for Pensions and Retirement Research.
  • Co-investigator for the Health and Retirement Study at the University of Michigan.
  • Serves on the board of the University of Pennsylvania Population Aging Research Center.
  • Research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research.
  • Served on President Bush’s Commission to Strengthen Social Security.
  • Served on the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA, Advisory Council.
  • Co-author of numerous publications on retirement, pensions, public finance and risk management.

Long-ranging and extensive in scope, the study has surveyed more than 27,000 people age 50 and older since 1992 and has yielded a mother lode of information on the consequences of retirement and the relationship between health, income and wealth over time.

The result, The Health & Retirement Study, or HRS, is a cooperative effort managed by the NIA and the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. caught up with Mitchell as she was returning from an international conference for pension fund managers in Lima, Peru.
The HRS study data indicates a larger proportion of baby boomers expect to be working after age 65. What factors are contributing to that expectation?Boomers are beginning to understand that they are more likely to live for a long time in retirement, thus requiring more financing for retirement than in the past. Also, Social Security and Medicare are in a precarious state. So working longer offers a chance to save up more and sustain an income at an older age. And since there are fewer young people in the labor force, employers are actively seeking to keep older workers in many cases, so they won’t lose the know-how and productivity.

How do changes in marital status influence a retiree’s wealth? And are there differences based on gender?
Divorce and death usually reduce women’s wealth substantially. The evidence is less conclusive for men.
When it comes to overall wealth, how important is it for Americans entering into or saving for retirement to have a varied portfolio of investments and savings? Especially when most people consider the value of their home the most important component of wealth, and home values are declining in most markets?

Diversification is essential for having a well-rounded investment strategy. In particular, it is important not to have all one’s eggs in one’s housing basket, particularly given the downward trend in housing prices of late.

The study suggests that the annual cost of informal caregiving associated with certain illnesses can be billions of dollars annually. Further, the financial costs incurred by families who provide informal care (through reduced hours of paid work) can be significant. If long-term care insurance is a viable option to help defray such costs, why are relatively few older adults purchasing it?Research shows that many people wrongly believe that Medicare is going to pay for their nursing homes. The fact is, Medicare won’t cover most long-term care expenses. However, Medicaid may, and this strongly deters people from purchasing long-term care insurance.

(Reporter’s note: Medicare Part A will cover the full cost of up to 20 days in a skilled nursing facility. For days 21 to 100, the patient pays up to $128 per day. After 100 days, the patient pays for the full cost of the stay until the benefit period renews. The patient must meet certain eligibility requirements. Source:

Written by
Barbara Whelehan
Contributing writer
Barbara Whelehan is a contributing writer for Bankrate. Barbara writes about a range of subjects, including homebuying, real estate, retirement, taxes and banking.