So, You'll Just Work A Few Years Longer. You Sure?

Last Updated Jul 17, 2009 1:43 PM EDT

As you stare at the smoking ruin of your 401(k), the collapsed value of your home and the massive deficits facing Social Security, it's pretty clear what you have to do to have any hope of retiring with dignity. Work a few more years. Call it quits at 66, say, instead of 62. The math is surprisingly favorable, as Carla Fried points out in her MoneyWatch feature, "The Ultimate Retirement Fix."

There's just one problem: When you retire isn't entirely up to you.

A survey from the Employee Benefits Research Institute notes that there is often an alarmingly wide gap between when people expect to retire and when they actually do. Nearly half of of the retirees in the survey left work earlier than they had planned, and the reasons overwhelmingly weren't good. Some 42 percent cited their own poor health or disability and 18 percent cited a spouse or parent's condition. About a third mentioned changes at their company, like layoffs, and 13 percent said that having outdated skills played a role. "Some retirees mention a mix of positive and negative reasons for retiring early," the EBRI release says, "but just 10 percent offer only positive reasons."

The upshot it is, you can't assume that working longer is always going to be an available Plan B. You can help yourself, though, by making a few intelligent moves:
  • Take care of your health. You ought to do this for a million other obvious reasons. Your financial security is just one more. A big one.
  • Invest in your career. You're going to have to keep your skills up to date whether you like it or not.
  • Get real about what's in store. Data show that you probably won't be working at age 60 for the same company you worked for at age 50. That means you're going to have to start at a place where not everyone knows how important you once were. You'll likely make less money than you did at your peak, and you've got to be okay with working for someone your daughter's age. But remember: No one has to hire you at all.
As Alicia Munnell and Steven Sass put it in their book Working Longer, "Retirement is going to be a much messier process than it was in the past." Get over it.
  • Eric Schurenberg

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