Don't despair about retirement -- take action

Yet another survey illustrates the anxiety many Americans feel about retirement. Insurance company Northwestern Mutual recently released its 2015 Planning and Progress Study, which reveals how many Americans feel insecure about their retirement:

  • 31 percent believe there's at least a 50/50 chance they'll outlive their savings.
  • 30 percent say it's not at all likely that Social Security will be there when they need it.
  • 52 percent express uncertainty about having a safety net if they outlive their savings.

"Working longer" seems to be the new retirement "plan," with age 68 cited as the average age that working Americans expect to retire. This is a full 10 years beyond the average actual retirement age that current retirees cite.

Of those who plan to work beyond age 65, nearly two-thirds say working will be a financial necessity, and 79 percent cite insufficient savings and lack of confidence about Social Security providing enough income as their main reasons for working longer.

These are indeed valid concerns: Many Americans have insufficient savings to maintain their current standard of living into their retirement years, and Social Security was never designed to provide a comfortable retirement income. While saying you'll just keep working is one possible response to these challenges, that "plan" is really just a hope that kicks the can a little further down the road. Eventually, most people reach a point when they're no longer able to work or their employer no longer wants them to work.

Americans feeling anxious about their retirement security can take some inspiration from a famous quote from Joan Baez: "Action is the antidote to despair."

So, what retirement actions can you take to stave off despair?

  • Start planning for retirement -- real planning, not just saying you'll work longer. More than one-third of Americans surveyed by Northwestern Mutual say they had taken no steps to plan for their financial future, and 43 percent report not talking with anyone about retirement planning.
  • Although 69 percent say they take a self-directed approach to financial planning, people who work with a planner are twice as likely to feel secure about their future than those who don't (68 percent vs. 35 percent). If you were feeling physically sick, you'd go to a doctor. So, if your finances are making you ill, find and work with a qualified financial advisor. It might make you feel better.
  • Estimate your Social Security income at the Social Security website. It's easy and shouldn't take more than an hour. This way, you'll have a more accurate idea of what your Social Security income will be. That will help you determine how much other resources you'll need to support yourself in your retirement years.
  • Start learning how to generate lifetime retirement income. Fifty-two percent of people surveyed by Northwestern Mutual say they've taken no steps to prepare for the possibility they'll outlive their savings.
  • Take care of your health. If you're planning to work into your late 60s, you'll need to be in shape. Yet half of the respondents in Northwestern Mutual's survey report they tend to live in the moment and eat foods they know aren't good for them.

The necessary steps are easy to say, harder to do: Save, plan and take care of your health so you can work. Still, if you are feeling desperate about your retirement years, maybe that will give you the energy and motivation to do something about it.

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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 Retirement Game-Changers: Strategies for a Healthy, Financially Secure and Fulfilling Long Life and Money for Life: Turn Your IRA and 401(k) Into a Lifetime Retirement Paycheck.