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Is Retirement Even Possible?

Millions of people age 70+ are still on the job.

Government benefits were not designed to support a 30-year-long retirement. Gradually, company pensions became common, offering workers a secure and steady retirement income stream based on salary and years of service. Workers began to retire at earlier ages and adopted a lifestyle that became synonymous with easy living—days spent fishing, golfing and gardening, and weeks committed to travel.

This vision of retirement has become a fading dream for many people, replaced by the harsh reality of declining private pensions, inadequate retirement savings, escalating health care costs and mounting debt.

“The financial underpinning of retirement as we know it is contracting,” says Steven Sass, coauthor of the book Working Longer: The Solution to the Retirement Income Challenge. “Workers have not saved enough to offset these contractions. The only two options, at this point, are to eat less or work longer. There’s no more coming to you.”

The Paliani-Phillips path of working longer is becoming the option of choice. Policy changes like the elimination of mandatory retirement laws and the Social Security earnings penalty for workers who are full retirement age have also made it easier to remain employed later in life, both in full-time and part-time jobs.

“One of the great success stories of the 20th century was for most people to retire in reasonable comfort and dignity,” says AARP policy adviser Sara Rix. “Looking ahead, the situation is going to be quite different than it is for today’s 80-year-olds.”

According to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, 52 percent of boomers born between 1948 and 1954 are at risk for being unable to maintain their standard of living in retirement. And it will get worse: 64 percent of boomers born between 1955 and 1964, and 71 percent of Gen X-ers born between 1965 and 1974, may be unable to retire comfortably in their lifetime.

“Most people will be able to spend 15 years in retirement, not 30 years, but it’s still a substantial retirement,” says Richard Johnson, a senior fellow who specializes in older-worker issues at the Urban Institute, a think tank. “Life expectancy will continue to increase, so people are going to have to work longer.”

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