Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Definition of Retirement has Changed: Yet Another Survey

There is no argument, from Boomers to their offspring, that the word retirement has a different definition. Rather than a single concept, it has morphed into a series of ideas and possibilities and that, as these things tend to do, creates surveys to tell us so.

Many of you may not be aware of the Unretirement Index published by SunLife Financial. Based on a phone survey of over 1200 households, this wonder of a poll offered most of us a peek into the world of retirement that, unless you were living under a rock for the last couple of years, comes as no surprise.

What retirement boils down to, based on this survey and my own taking of the online version: one, what retirement was previously though of as, will change, two, we never gave retirement a serious thought until we found out we didn't really focus on it, and three, if you have a pension or as it is known in the financial business as a defined benefit plan (rather than 401(k) or IRA), you are much more likely to think of retirement in terms of what it used to be rather than what it has morphed into of late.

The SunLife Unretirement Index does not paint a very pretty picture of the concept of retirement. It goes so far as to report that for the vast majority of us, the concept of retirement means working longer to recoup investment losses, never stopping working in some way, or simply working as long as we can to achieve a state of living well. If you read the report, you will think that there is no difference between living well and living within your means.

We still have a preconceived notion of what retirement should be. We think of it as the old, production era idea of retirement as simply having toiled as a laborer until you were physically unable to continue. Without some retirement in place for this group of workers, the country would have spiraled quickly into poverty. Now, pensions do still exists and in many cases, for just this sort of worker. At not surprisingly, it is this group of workers that tend to respond favorably to their retirement outlook.

But the workplace dynamic has changed from industrial to service and with it, the belief that pensions are a way of rewarding the worker. Once the IRA or 401(k) became the commonplace, which has taken about two decades, the worker was given the tools to invest and it was widely believed, that was all that was needed. And many did.

But just having hammer doesn't make you a builder and more than half of us simply did not heed the call, buy the sell of these plans or were otherwise restricted by long vesting period, unattractive investment choices or low incentives. Did I mention that we didn't get it either?

If we had we would have been among the elite ranks of the investor class, the group that has few members and even fewer winners. Expecting the average person to grasp the nuances of the stock market, the convoluted thinking of fixed income, or the ability to balance the two in the right proportions as we aged turned out exactly as most would have predicted it would - had they been able to foresee a downturn: badly. We either assumed too much risk or we didn't assume any.

We either invested or we didn't invest enough, if at all. So where does that leave us?

There are basically three consideration in retirement: the ability to meet the basic needs to survive, the cost of health care, and defining quality of life. Most of us can't understand the cost of the basic needs to survive. We think of this in terms of what we have now instead of against what we absolutely need in terms of income flow to keep what we have now. That is simply skewed financial thinking. If you were to retire today, and were expected to live only another twenty years or so, on an income that was 40% smaller than your current one, could you do it without making some changes? Of course you couldn't.

But most respondents to these surveys believe that nothing should change. You should be able to keep your home (even if it will eventually be too big, too costly for upkeep and perhaps taxed right out of the reach of even a working family with growing income potential). This group also believes that restricting how much you consume will negatively affect that quality of life and among those restrictions are less debt, fewer toys and what some may see as an otherwise boring post-work life.

While a great many of the respondents suggested mental activity as reason to remain working, this is only part of the reason. The real reasons are the financial implications of retiring after having not given it much if any of a consideration. Some jobs are rewarding. But no job comes without performance stress and if this is the sort of mental activity they believe will keep them young, they should think again.

Marcelle Pick, OBGYN NP in Portland Maine recently wrote that "The World Health Organization estimates that by the year 2020, psychological and stress-related disorders will be the second leading cause of disabilities in the world." This sort of flies in the face of "we will all live longer, happier and healthier lives" and points to "shorter, stressful and ultimately less robust lives".

Back in the day, the benchmark for financial health, the one the bank often used during the mortgage process was 60/40, obligations to unencumbered income. This is the template we should all be using for retirement. It is a bit more complicated than that but like all templates, it focuses on what you need to get by.

Those who are older than 50 can count on most of the current support programs such as Social Security and Medicare being in place. This time frame also provides you with some time frame in which to hunker down so to speak, and save more, spend less and begin to experience the 60/40 lifestyle.

Those in their 40's can expect some of the social support programs to still be in existence but not as they were for the retirees a decade before you. But on the flip side, you will have a full decade longer to begin financing your 60/40 lifestyle. What retirement will look like in 20 to 25 years is anyone's guess. But if you assume the worst and plan for it, you should be at least cautiously optimistic about where you will be.

Those in their 30's or younger should never forget the look on your parent's faces post-2008. No one can say with any certainty what your retirement will look like or whether such a concept will even exist. One thing does remain constant, even in these seemingly inconsistent times: the longer you have to prepare, the better your financial outlook will be.

If you would like to take the SunLife Unretirement survey, something I did and they suggested that I was a cautiously optimistic, which seemed to be an odd conclusion considering you either are or you aren't. Click here unless you already know who you are and what you have to do.

Paul Petillo is the Managing Editor of and a fellow Boomer.

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