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Lessons From a Retirement Road Trip

The producer of the documentary Broken Eggs reveals what Americans told him about the nation's looming retirement crisis

By Chad Parks | September 17, 2013
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Chad Parks is founder, president and chief executive of the Online 401(k), a Web-based, flat-fee retirement plan provider for small businesses that is headquartered in San Francisco.

In the spring of 2012, I set out in an RV on a six-week, cross-country journey with one goal in mind: to document Americans’ experiences planning for and living in retirement.

During the road trip, I filmed interviews with retirees and people still working full-time for the upcoming documentary about the state of retirement today, Broken Eggs: The Looming Retirement Crisis in America; I’m the executive producer. With pensions going extinct, Social Security facing solvency concerns and personal savings falling short, the retirement landscape has changed dramatically. Many people are delaying retirement; others never get there at all.

Talking with Boomers About Retirement

My team and I logged more than 1,000 hours of footage, mostly featuring boomers in retirement or close to it. We learned a lot about what they’ve been through, their resilience and their unvarnished views on retirement post-downturn.

(MORE: What Retirees Say Retirement is Really Like)

Some of the stories were, frankly, sad. Others gave us hope.

I’d like to share with you the three most profound quotes about retirement that I heard during the six-week road trip:

“You can’t solve big problems with what fits on a bumper sticker.”

This came from Bongo the Balloon Man in Boulder, Colo., who has been making balloon animals for 25 years.

Bongo was a big, burly guy making dainty balloons and one of the most financially literate people I met during the retirement tour. A near expert on economics, Bongo was well aware of the problems many Americans now face as they approach retirement.

(MORE: The Secrets of How to 'Retire Happy')

His quote reminded me that when it comes to the retirement crisis, there is no easy answer or catchy slogan to solve it. It’s a mistake to think that the government or employers will provide a magic fix.

We can only depend on ourselves to provide for our own future. It’s all about personal responsibility.

Our young people got no future. They’ll never, ever be able to own anything. What happened to the dream of the U.S.? Everybody in life is in a race to the stoplight.”

In Hawthorne, Nev., Danny Moss took time out from running his pawnshop with Tom Berry to provide this gloomy view about retirement for the next generation of retirees. His daughter, a Gen Xer, owns the local pizza shop.

Danny loves Hawthorne, a small, close-knit community where the average household income is $20,000 below the U.S. average.

(MORE: 10 Keys to Retirement's Holy Grail)

But he explained that watching his family struggle financially has affected his outlook about retirement for his peers and their children.

Danny believes the nation’s economic woes have had a multigenerational trickle-down effect on Americans’ retirement prospects. For example, he told me, many boomers won't be in the financial position to pass along inheritances that would help their children eventually retire.

Danny taught me that planning for retirement has become a cross-generational problem.

The solution is to help your grown children in other ways than giving them money. Teach them about finances and help your adult kids learn from your triumphs, as well as your mistakes.

While I respect Danny’s opinion, I do believe there is hope for the next generation. They have strong voices, and boomers have encouraged them to speak out and care about their future. Let’s keep up that momentum!

I think I’ll be able to work as long as I can. If I can’t play live anymore, I can still teach. I can work as long as I need to.”

Perhaps you’ve heard of Grammy-award winner Redd Volkaert, an Austin, Texas, guitarist in his mid-50s who has been playing music most of his life.

Although he has been professionally successful, Redd has also been frugal, saving as much as he can while picking up side gigs whenever he could. I found it really uplifting to speak with Redd because of his positive outlook on retirement.

I think boomers in their 50s and older who are still working should try to take a tip from what Redd said. If you’re doing what you love, don’t give it up because you feel as though you have to because of your age.
 
And if you have a passion outside your career, follow that in retirement.
 
Spend your retirement days pursuing your dreams and passing along your talents to others, like Redd plans to do. Call it the part-time retirement.
 
What Makes a Successful Retirement

Many of the retired boomers I spoke with said a successful retirement comes down to preparing for it through frugality and personal accountability.
 
What the road trip interviews taught me is that we have more control than we think — we can prevent ourselves from becoming victims of the retirement crisis.

That said, this is a new era of retirement. So it’s important for boomers to join the conversation about the issues they’re facing and to work together to find solutions to stem the crisis for future generations.

Talk to your friends, neighbors, relatives and family members about this important subject. My hope is that Broken Eggs will make it easier to break down those conversational walls.

To get you started in this movement and join the army of voices, tell me your retirement story. Record your message and upload it to You Tube. We might even use it in the film.