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ECONOMY

The Anxious Generation

Stressed-out Americans over 50 wonder if they’re ever going to be able to retire. They worry that the Great Recession will have a lasting impact on their security.

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When the parents of Julie Gray, a veterinarian in Las Cruces, N.M., retired, each of them could rely on company pensions as well as their own retirement accounts. At age 52, her situation is very different.

“I own my own business, so all I have is a 401(k), and my husband does have compensation from his employer, but they are constantly cutting those benefits,” she sighs. While her mother retired in her 50s, Gray says she and her husband expect to be working into their 70s. “I think it will take us a lot longer to accumulate the money we need to retire, plus I think we’ll need to compensate for inflation,” she says. “It’s just one of those things.”

 

Gray is a charter member of what could be called the anxious generation. In the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll, Americans like Gray who are nearing the end of their work careers are much more uneasy about their prospects for retirement than those who have already stopped working.

Compared with today’s retirees, Americans who are over 50 but have not yet retired are substantially more stressed about their current financial circumstances; more skeptical of relying on the stock market to provide their income after they stop working; more concerned that the Great Recession and its aftermath will lastingly diminish their prospects; and much more worried that they will not enjoy as secure a retirement as their parents did. On average, near-retirees expect they will need to keep working as many as six years longer than today’s retirees did when they received the gold watch.

By comparison, today’s seniors, while not entirely sheltered from the economic storm, seem somewhat more buffered from it. On an array of measures, the poll found, the current generation of seniors is split almost in half between those who feel relatively secure and those who do not. Still, nearly four-fifths of today’s retirees are at least somewhat confident that they will have enough money to enjoy a stable retirement. And only about one in six expect their golden years to be less secure than that of their parents.

 

For those approaching retirement, the sense of security expressed by today’s seniors looks like a ship that is sailing beyond reach. Long past the generation of workers who could rely on guaranteed pensions, squeezed by faltering 401(k) returns, and strained by the financial costs of rearing children, many of the near-retirees fear they have not set aside enough money—and expect that failure may mean a more arduous and truncated retirement than earlier generations enjoyed. “I doubt I’ll ever retire,” says Bill Eason, a 57-year-old real estate appraiser in Livonia, Mich., who responded to the poll. “I don’t foresee that unless health issues come into play [and force me to stop working]. It’s just an issue of being able to keep up with expenses.”

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The latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll is the 11th in a series exploring the ways that Americans are navigating the changing economy. The poll, conducted by Ed Reilly, Brent McGoldrick, and Jeremy Ruch of FTI Strategic Communications, a communications-strategy consulting firm, surveyed 1,200 adults by landline telephone and cell phone from Nov. 30 to Dec. 4, including an oversample of 200 interviews among adults age 50 and older. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points; the margin of error for near-retirees and current retirees is larger, almost 6 percentage points. This survey focused on Americans’ expectations of—and experiences in—retirement.

Today’s retirees, and those nearing the end of their working lives, both describe retirement in similar terms. In an open-ended question, about half of each group defined retirement as not having to work, with the next largest group terming it a time to relax with fewer responsibilities.

 

More than four-fifths of each group expressed at least some confidence in their ability to make financial decisions relating to their post-working years (as did the rest of the population). Both groups converged around the same priorities when asked what individuals could do to best prepare for retirement; each placed at the top of the list contributing to a retirement plan, and saving and paying off debts (working longer or paying off a mortgage ranked lower). Both groups came together as well in declaring that they would most trust advice on retirement from friends and family members, part of a long-standing trend toward sometimes reluctant self-reliance in earlier Heartland Monitor polls. Only 16 percent of those in retirement, and 13 percent of those near it, expressed a “great deal” of trust in financial institutions to help them make such decisions.

The two groups also substantially overlap in describing their greatest concerns about retirement. Roughly one-third of current and near-retirees say they worry most about either outliving their money or becoming unable to afford basic expenses; about one in eight in each case worry most about becoming a financial burden on others. Only one in 12 in each group are most concerned about becoming bored. The sharpest difference: More near-retirees than retirees say that their greatest fear is becoming unable to afford health care.

Scott Bland contributed contributed to this article.

This article appears in the December 17, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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