How realistic is it to say you'll never retire?

Recent surveys show that more people are saying they plan to delay their retirement or might never retire. Is this realistic -- or wishful thinking?

According to a recent survey from consulting firm TowersWatson, nearly four in 10 U.S. workers plan on working longer, an increase of nine percentage points since the company's 2009 survey. A large majority of these employees expect to delay retirement by three or more years, while 44 percent plan to delay it by five years or more.

Unfortunately, the survey also found that people who plan to delay retirement tend to be disengaged, less healthy and more stressed.

The survey findings suggest the average retirement age will increase in the future. In 2009, 31 percent of workers planned to retire before age 65, and 41 percent planned to retire later. According to the 2013 survey, only 25 percent of people now plan to retire before 65, while half expect to retire later. One in three employees either don't expect to retire until after 70 or don't plan to retire at all. In 2013, seven percent of those surveyed said they'd never retire, up from five percent in 2009.

A recent survey from Associated Press-National Opinion Research Center (AP-NORC) shows similar results. Of those surveyed who are currently working, 47 percent now plan to retire at a later age than they expected to when they were 40. Financial requirements, health and the need for benefits were cited as the most important factors for delaying retirement.

It also seems that the line between working and retirement is shifting, with 82 percent of Americans 50 and older who are currently working and not retired saying it's likely or very likely that they'll do some work for pay in retirement.

But retirement isn't a choice for everyone: Among those who are currently retired, one-third report that they didn't have an option. For retirees under 65, that percentage increases to 54 percent.

Another recent survey -- the 2014 Retirement Confidence Survey from the Employee Benefit Research Institute -- shows a long-term trend in the rise of workers' expected retirement ages. For instance, 31 percent of workers said in 1991 they expected to retire between 60 and 64. By 2014, this figure dropped to 18 percent.

In 1991, 34 percent of workers expected to retire at 65, but this figure dropped to 23 percent by 2014. The percentage of workers who expected to retire at 70 or older increased from nine percent in 1991 to 22 percent in 2014. Finally, the percentage of workers who say they'll never retire doubled, from five percent in 1991 to 10 percent in 2014.

But workers' expectations that they want to delay retirement is at odds with the experience of actual retirees. From 1991 to 2014, the median age at retirement -- age 62 -- has remained unchanged. The main reason for the gap between workers' expectations and retirees' experience is that many people retire unexpectedly.

The Retirement Confidence survey consistently reports that a large percentage of retirees leave the workforce earlier than they planned (49 percent in 2014). The reasons cited are health problems (61 percent), downsizing or plant closure (18 percent) and needing to care for a spouse or other family member (18 percent).

But delaying retirement isn't necessarily a bad thing. I've previously written many times about the advantages of delaying Social Security and working longer in retirement. That's particularly important when many older workers report modest amounts of retirement savings, which means they'll need to continue working just to make ends meet.

However, planning to work in retirement isn't a plan you can count on, as shown by the reports mentioned above. Often it's just wishful thinking and perhaps a reason to feel better about not saving or planning for retirement.

Those who say they'll never retire should think again. Take a look at your oldest relatives in their 80s and 90s -- do you really think they could still work?

Your best bet is to spend some time planning for your retirement years, including investigating how you might find work in your later years, improving your health so that you're able to work, assessing how long it's realistic that you could work and developing a realistic savings plan to support yourself when you eventually retire.

Planning is the best way to increase the chances you'll be happy in your retirement years.

  • Steve Vernon On Twitter»

    View all articles by Steve Vernon on CBS MoneyWatch»
    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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