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Boomers' biggest retirement regret? They didn't work longer

By Hal Bundrick/

Many American workers have begun proclaiming the end of retirement. An Allianz study released last week found that 82 percent of baby boomers -- and Gen Xers -- claim that a traditional retirement is a "romantic fantasy of the past." A recent headline declared, "70 Is the New 65." A few years ago, a Wells Fargo survey of "pessimistic" workers facing delayed retirement inspired headlines in the financial media of "80 Is the New 65." Forget golf and antiquing: It's a work-till-you-drop world.

Now, a new study from Bankers Life finds 41 percent of baby boomers still in the workplace expect to work beyond age 69 -- or never retire. Of those already retired, 69 percent of middle-income baby boomers say they would have liked to have been able to work longer.

You would think that such a never-ending work ethic might be rooted in financial fear. But of the retired baby boomers who do have a job, the respondents say it's not just a money thing. In fact, six in 10 say they work for nonfinancial reasons -- because they want to, not because they have to. Those surveyed cite such reasons as staying mentally sharp (18 percent) and physically active (15 percent), as well as maintaining a sense of purpose (15 percent).

Working simply because you want to may sound like a great life, but digging deeper into the survey reveals a dark reality. While boomers may want to work in retirement, most retired boomers (72 percent) aren't working at all. And half of those who don't work would like to have a job but can't get one, mostly due to health issues.

Physical setbacks and the steep costs of health care can shock even the most financially prepared boomer. A Fidelity analysis last year estimated that couples retiring at age 65 are expected to face $220,000 in health care costs during their retirement years.

So much for the working retirement that many boomers are thinking will bail out their lack of savings or keep their minds and bodies active.

However, it's not simply a health issue, as noted by Teresa Ghilarducci of the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis in New York. Older workers are finding it harder to get hired and are making less money.

"Calling for an increase in the retirement age as a solution to a lack of retirement savings overlooks nearly half a century of economic literature on earnings," Ghilarducci writes in a recent blog post. "Economists have long known that age/earnings profiles have a parabolic shape, demonstrating a visible decline after the ages 55-59 as older workers are overlooked for promotions and on-the-job training. Workers experience a decline in earnings after ages 55-59 regardless of education levels."

As Ghilarducci said in a Slate interview in March, "Working longer is a retirement plan like winning the lottery or dying earlier is a retirement plan. Being able to work longer is not a plan. It's a hope."

And as the saying goes, "Hope is not a strategy."

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