Retirement Planners May Need to Bring Seniors Back to Reality

A variety of financial-preparedness surveys have found intense anxiety among seniors regarding retirement, with many feeling unprepared to face their future without a steady income from work. But another study that focused on more qualitative visions of retirement shows that many financial planners might have to provide a sobering dose of reality to their clients.

Chaiwoo Lee and Joseph Coughlin of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s AgeLab asked a group of 979 adults to write about their current lives and their hopes for retirement. The results, published in the August edition of the Journal of Financial Planning, show that Americans are wildly upbeat about their post-working life: Of the total responses, 908 included at least one word deemed to be positive — such as relax, travel, hobbies, freedom, and family — as compared to just 158 with one or more negative words.

Members of the “silent generation” were slightly more optimistic than their baby-boom counterparts, with 91.7% positive comments as compared to 88.3%, but members of the baby boom generation — those aged 51 to 69 — also reported fewer negative comments than the 70-and-over members of the silent generation. In addition, respondents making under $25,000 annually and unmarried participants expressed a slightly more negative outlook than those who made more or were married, but the overall trends were nearly universal.


“However, even in these groups, positive words remained the majority,” Lee and Coughlin noted.

That might sound like good news on its face, but there’s overwhelming evidence that seniors’ financial reality doesn’t match their upbeat vision of a future with beach vacations and financial freedom. Lee and Coughlin’s analysis notes that only 57% of American households have any type of retirement savings, according to a 2016 study, with a median nest egg of just $5,000. Earlier this year, a Federal Reserve study found that less than 40% of Americans feel like they’re on the right financial track, while half of respondents to an Allianz Life Insurance survey released earlier this month said they’d fallen behind on their retirement savings and felt like they were scrambling to catch up.

This disconnect stems in part from the fact that retirement is a far-off prospect for even the baby boom generation, making respondents fall back on the relaxation and financial comfort depicted in commercials for retirement products and overall pop culture. For instance, the same 10 words about retirement showed up in a third of all responses, Lee and Coughlin wrote, while 27 words accounted for half of the results.

“Because participants were asked to think about an intangible future state, their answers may have been bounded to a small, abstract, and coherent set of words,” the pair wrote. “The observation that younger respondents used more vague and abstract words, while older respondents used more specific words, further supports this explanation.”

The researchers conclude that financial planning partners must help seniors and others pursuing retirement advice to ground their expectations in reality.

“Financial planners may not want to dissuade clients of looking optimistically, but they may find an important role as educators in tempering popular images of beach walks and green fairways with candid discussions of possible futures that may be costly and less positive,” Lee and Coughlin wrote.

Written by Alex Spanko

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  • This study is odd in defining generations. 69 is not the oldest of the Baby Boomers; 72 is. The first Baby Boomers were born on January 1, 1946, not January 1, 1948.

    Yet the study reports: “but members of the baby boom generation — those aged 51 to 69 — also reported fewer negative comments than the 70-and-over members of the silent generation.” Again the definitions are odd since the last Baby Boomers were born on December 31, 1964, making the youngest Baby boomers 54 years old, NOT 53 down to 51 years old.

    Like our industry far too many Americans are overly optimistic. They generally believe they are immune to poverty and misery. We generally deny historical cycles but accept panacea with no factual foundation. While this has helped us it has also hurt the nation since optimism so readily turns into despair and pessimism. So comparing recent studies about retirees not financially prepared for retirement with the optimism reported above, the results are not startling in the least.

    As the old saying goes the most pessimistic are yesterday’s optimists who were just mugged by reality.

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