Do People Need To Work Longer?

Here's a blog entry from Emily Brandon at U.S. News & World Report’s Planning to Retire blog discussing the option for people to work longer in order to recoup stock market losses.

In particular, I liked and agreed with the following quote from Alicia Munnell who is the director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College and coauthor of Working Longer: The Solution to the Retirement Income Challenge.  Ms. Munnell astutely points out that "Even before the financial crisis, people should have been considering working longer because they are going to live longer."

As an independent fiduciary and industry observer, I am often critical of many retirement industry practices and feel much can be done to improve the state of our country's retirement plan system (hence the name of the book and the blog).  However, plan participants are not without personal responsibility as well. 

In the course of my work, it often strikes me as odd when most people talk about retiring early, as if this is some sort of rite of passage.  This is even more true when the majority of folks don't have fixed income sources (beyond Social Security), haven't saved enough on their own, aren't debt-free and want to maintain an affluent style of living they've become accustomed to.  These issues are significantly compounded when you factor in longer life expectancies. 

Now to be sure, there are people who have the financial freedom to retire early (if they so desire).  Perhaps they accumulated wealth through owning or selling a business, were lucky enough to own company stock that did well or took the old-fashioned (but never out of style) approach of living below their means, eliminating their debt and investing wisely and consistently.  To those people I say job well done.  The problem is that those people are often the exception rather than the rule.

Consider the person who wants to retire at 55. Let's assume they entered the workforce at age 22 and will live until age 90. This means they will spend more time in retirement than they did working!  From  strictly a numbers standpoint, is early retirement a possibility for that person if they won't be eligible for Social Security until age 62 (and age 66 for full benefits), have to draw entirely from their personal savings until that point, don't have a pension, and are still paying on a mortgage (there are many people who fall into this category)?  If it is a possibility, will it require any sacrifices and is this person willing to make them?  Does everything have to go exactly as planned to make this work?  What's the likelihood of that happening? 

This is to say nothing about the question of whether early retirement is a positive thing in terms of health and longevity - maybe, maybe not.  What about the question as to whether we have a responsibility to our fellow citizens to be good financial stewards so as to protect them from the problems we bring upon ourselves by making bad decisions?

The key to long-term wealth accumulation is simple but not easy.  It requires a commitment to consistently living below your means over long periods of time, eliminating your debt and investing prudently.  Also, consider that in 1950 the average life expectancy (in years) of a man in the U.S. was 65.6 and 71.1 for a woman.  By 2004, those numbers had climbed to 75.2 and 80.4, respectively. 

As people live longer, a successful retirement experience will likely require a commitment to making sacrifices such as postponing retirement and working longer.  As Ms. Munnell suggests, if people haven't considered this option they may want (or need) to start.