Yet that access may make the biggest difference when it comes to closing the gap between traditional and nontraditional workers’ retirement income.
“There’s usually a way to pick up health insurance one way or another, through a spouse or the A.C.A.,” Dr. Munnell said, referring to the Affordable Care Act. “But it’s very hard to save on your own. It’s not enough to say, ‘Anybody can go open up an I.R.A.,’ because people don’t do that.”
(Ms. Jacobs is an exception. “I’ve always been a worrier,” she said. “I’ve never been able to sleep if I didn’t have six months of savings in the bank, and I’ve always saved for retirement.”)
The lowest-paid workers may be the most reluctant to try to save for retirement. “There’s a lot of demands on a limited income,” Dr. Munnell said.
Workers like Mr. Shelley, whose business, like the hiring market, has ground down because of the coronavirus, know they are vulnerable. “I believe I have more than 20 years ahead of me, and that I’ll be doing this until the day I die,” he said.
He said he planned to move to a more affordable city when his wife retired and hopes his health holds out, at least until he qualifies for Medicare. “It’s only the catastrophic stuff, like a cancer diagnosis, that I worry about,” Mr. Shelley said.
Dr. Munnell wishes that he and other nontraditional workers were in a position to fret less.
“I was not only surprised, I was also saddened” by the research, she said. “The results mean that people have to worry about getting protections on their own, and that they have very unpredictable work lives.”