What’s the forecast for retirement in America these days?
Based on what I just heard from the gurus at the American Society on Aging’s “Aging in America” conference and the “What’s Next Boomer Business Summit,” I’d say: Partly sunny.
The funny thing was that “retirement” was often the Lord Voldemort of the conferences: The Name That Shall Not Be Spoken.
Instead, the experts spoke in code, using such alternative phrases as “your next step,” “your next moment” and, as the boomer confab was called, “what’s next.”
(MORE: Seeing Your ‘Future’ Self Can Make Retirement Better)
Euphemisms were the currency of the realm.
“Aging” and “getting older” were out. “Longevity” was in. (I guess we’re not getting older, we’re getting longer.)
Employees over 50 weren’t “older workers,” they were “experienced workers.”
Verbiage aside, I came away from the conferences believing that prospects for retirement are improving a bit – particularly for those who are planning for it. But there are also a few storm clouds hovering.
First, the broad, cheerier news:
Financial fears concerning retirement are diminishing. Based on what I heard, I’d take issue with a recent line by Steven Greenhouse of The New York Times: "If America’s vision of retirement might once have been called ‘On Golden Pond,’ it would now more likely be called ‘On Thin Ice.’"
Steve French, known for his Natural Marketing Institute’s boomer surveys, said his latest research found that 52 percent of Americans over 50 says they’re on target with their financial plan for retirement, up from 49 percent in 2006.
When he asked about their top fears of aging, “running out of money” came in No. 3, behind “losing mental/brain capacity” and “being a burden on my family and other loved ones.”
The caveat: 67 percent of those surveyed said “I fear a major illness could destroy my financial security.” That concern echoes the just-released 2013 Franklin Templeton Retirement Income Strategies and Expectations survey, which found that 60 percent of Americans 55 to 64 said health care was the expense they are most concerned about paying in retirement.
Another cause for optimism: The booming stock market has pumped up retirement portfolios — for those who’ve invested.
Alicia Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, told The New York Times that she estimates the Wall Street runup has lifted the average retirement savings in households with workers age 55 to 64 to $135,000, up from $120,000 in an earlier Federal Reserve study.
There are growing numbers of tools and experts to help people find fulfilling part-time work in retirement. One major theme of the conferences was that Americans will not only be living longer than previous generations, but many will also want or need to work in retirement. That wasn’t particularly newsy.
But rather than plugging away at their current jobs for more years, the experts said, boomers will be looking for work that can make a difference, either in their lives or in the lives of others.
(MORE: Surprising Reasons Boomers Are Working Longer)
“We’ve gained 30 years in our life expectancy and we want to fill it with meaning,” said Gail Sheehy, the noted cultural observer and author of Passages in Caregiving. (An aside: Sheehy joked that when she wrote her bestseller, Passages, in 1976, “I stopped parsing stages of life development at age 50. I figured, what could possibly happen past 50?”)
Ken Dychtwald, president and chief executive of the consulting firm Age Wave, said the head of Habitat for Humanity, Jonathan Reckford, attributes the boomers’ goal of finding meaningful work to “that gnawing feeling” many in this generation experience trying to transition “from success to significance.”
AARP’s new Life Reimagined project aims to help boomers “figure out their ‘what’s next’ moment,” said Beth Dailey, the group’s marketing director.
At its Lifereimagined.org site, currently in beta, you can select “Calling Cards” to match your personality type with jobs that could fit. In April, Dailey said, the site will let visitors form small “sounding board” groups whose members will help one another plot their next career steps.
Dorian Mintzer, the Boston-based owner of the site, Revolutionizeretirement.com, said she’s a fan of Encore.org, whose social media followers discuss doing work for the greater good. “Be open to possibilities,” Mintzer said.
That reminds me: If you know an inspiring person 60 or older whose work is changing the world, nominate him or her for Encore’s 2013 Purpose Prize. At least one winner is expected to receive $100,000. The application deadline is April 4.
I mentioned that I also heard about a few storm clouds at the conferences. The big ones:
Too many Americans aren’t taking retirement planning seriously. Debra Whitman, executive vice president for policy at AARP, noted that almost half the people over age 55 have saved less than $50,000. And even savers aren’t very methodical, she said.
When deciding how much money to put away each year and how much to withdraw in retirement, Whitman said, “most people are choosing to wing it.”
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Cindy Hounsell, president of Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement or WISER, recommended the Department of Labor’s free online calculator in its Taking the Mystery Out of Retirement Planning site. “It’s pretty easy,” Hounsell said.
Finding work can take awhile. “Slow is the new fast when it comes to hiring,” said Arlene Wanetick, a Chicago career counselor with Career Moves @ JVS Chicago. “One of my clients applied for a job and was told the CEO was very excited to meet with him,” Wanetick said. “A month later, he was getting ready to finally have the interview. I thought he’d be working there by now.”
Many employers still aren’t especially keen to hire people over 50. Jean Setzfand, vice president for financial security at AARP, conceded that “we have been struggling with that.” In its Work Reimagined jobs partnership with LinkedIn, Setzfand said, “we’re trying to show the value of experienced workers.” Yes, AARP says, health care costs may be higher than they are for younger employees. But in exchange, the employer will get “loyalty and a greater attention to communication skills and client services.”
Men are often having a rougher time than women figuring out their “next step.” Dick Goldberg, national director of the 50+ advisory and training group Coming of Age, said: “We had a session with the Philadelphia Bar Association and one litigator said, ‘What happens to me when I am not at my firm and I’m no longer a gladiator?’ He was frightened.”
Meg Newhouse, principal at the Passion and Purpose LifeCrafting consulting firm and founder of the Life Planning Network, added: “It’s much harder to get men to engage in taking their next step. It almost has to be a crisis to get them to come to a session — or they need to be dragged by their wives.”
Social Security’s annual cost of living adjustments — the benefit increases tied to inflation — will probably get cut. That was the consensus of the Washington insiders on the Aging in America “panel of pundits.”
They expect Congress and the Obama administration to switch to a calculation known as the "chained CPI," described in the Next Avenue article, “The Likely Way Social Security Benefits Will Be Cut.”
Retirees may not feel the pinch in a single year, but they will over time. All the more reason to save like mad now for your retirement … I mean “next step.”