Create a better vision of your retirement

(MoneyWatch) My last post presented some pretty depressing statistics about the current state of retirement in America. But rather than just wring my hands about the situation, I'd prefer to be a "realistic optimist" -- someone who accepts these problems but takes steps to tackle the challenges. For this, I take inspiration from John Wayne, who once said "Courage is being scared to death -- but saddling up anyway."

To illustrate the depressing state of retirement, my last post offered statistics that showed that many Americans approaching their retirement years haven't saved enough money for retirement, are heavily in debt, and are overweight or obese, two factors which translate to a higher potential for contracting expensive and debilitating chronic diseases in the years to come.

Now think about the powerful messages that bombard us from advertisements that are cleverly and scientifically designed to influence our behavior: You'll be happier/smarter/sexier/funnier/more popular/more attractive/more secure if you spend your money on the latest products; max out your credit card to buy those things; eat unhealthy foods with empty calories, unhealthy additives, and lots of sugar and cholesterol; and sit around all day and night at your computer and in front of your TV set.

Can you see the connection between our retirement challenges and the dysfunctional messages from advertising and our culture that immerse us in our daily lives?

There's nothing wrong with wanting to be happier/smarter/sexier/funnier/more popular/more attractive/more secure -- these are powerful human desires. It's just that the messages sent by advertisements and our culture may not be the best ways to achieve these goals, and in fact, you may end up with the opposite results.

Fortunately, there's been a shift underway in recent years. We're seeing healthier messages about the importance of saving for the future and taking care of our health. You can find these messages on the Internet, in magazines and newspapers, and in employee wellness programs at work. We need to start paying attention, and craft a better vision for our retirement years -- one that's realistic and hopefully will produce better outcomes than simply allowing current trends to play out to their undesirable conclusions. Call it a new "retirement manifesto."

So how can we saddle up and face our challenges? Here's my plan in a nutshell: I'm focusing on being happy, healthy, and financially secure. I accept that "not working"-- the traditional view of retirement -- may not be realistic or even the best way to have a meaningful life and be healthy and financially secure in my later years. I plan to stay engaged and productive in my community as long as possible, spend less than I make in order to live within my means, buy just enough stuff to meet my needs, take responsibility for my physical and financial health, and band together with my friends and relatives who are all in the same boat.

I'll pay attention to the emerging, healthy messages that support my plan; I'll let them inform me and strengthen my resolve. I'll recognize and ignore messages from advertising and culture that might take me off course, and instead just see them as part of the background noise in my environment.

Think about your vision for your retirement years, and then start paying attention to the messages you receive in your daily life. Which messages support your vision? Which messages lead you astray?

I don't mean to sugar-coat our challenges and pretend that a new retirement vision will magically make all our problems go away. But you've got to do something, and you've got to start somewhere! Stay tuned for future posts that will provide more details on how to meet our retirement challenges.

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    Steve Vernon helped large employers design and manage their retirement programs for more than 35 years as a consulting actuary. Now he's a research scholar for the Stanford Center on Longevity, where he helps collect, direct and disseminate research that will improve the financial security of seniors. He's also president of Rest-of-Life Communications, delivers retirement planning workshops and authored Money for Life: Turn Your IRA and 401(k) Into a Lifetime Retirement Paycheck and Recession-Proof Your Retirement Years.

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