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Why It's Time to Retire the Idea of Retirement

Philip Moeller

Several years of an alleged economic recovery have only reinforced the notion among middle-income baby boomers that something is fundamentally wrong with their retirement prospects and even the very idea of what retirement means.

Bankers Life and Casualty Company sponsored a poll in 2011 about the changing financial profiles of people born between 1946 and 1964, with household incomes ranging from $25,000 to $75,000 a year. This group is the heart of the middle class, or at least it was before the middle class was hollowed out by years and years of stagnant income growth and vanishing financial and real estate asset values.

[Read: What Are Your Real Retirement Costs?]

It's no secret that the middle class has been under enormous financial stress. The value of this study, "Middle-Income Boomers, Financial Security and the New Retirement," rests in the detailed portrait it provided of specific boomer actions and attitudes. A Bankers Life spokesperson said the findings remain relevant today. See how your own outlook compares with its findings.

Before the recession and market declines, Americans seemed to be on a debt-financed spending spree, often using their home equity as a piggy bank. No more. Since the downturn, middle-income boomers have sharply curtailed discretionary spending on most leisure-time items. Here are the percentages of respondents saying what they are spending less on:

Going out to restaurants: 63 percent

Vacations: 62 percent

Movies: 62 percent

Clothes and shoes: 60 percent

Gifts for birthdays and holidays: 58 percent

Electronics and tech gadgets: 56 percent

Hobbies: 55 percent

Cable television: 26 percent

Nearly 3 in 4 boomers say they've been forced to rethink their retirement date. Of these, nearly 80 percent (or more than half of all middle-income boomers) said they would delay retirement - by an average of five years - and 14 percent said they feel they can never retire. Retirement used to be linked with a person's age. "Today, more than ever, a new number has emerged in its place - the amount of one's personal savings," the study said. "On the new road to retirement, Americans can now retire only when they feel they can afford to do so."

[Read: Retirement Saving Tips for Couples.]

These findings were reinforced as recently as last week in a Gallup poll about retirement plans. Gallup reported that 75 percent of adult workers in the United States believe they will continue working past retirement age - a percentage split into roughly equal groups of people who expect to do so because they want to and because they have to. A much smaller group - 19 percent - fit into what is now the quaint tradition of planning to stop working when retirement age is reached.

The Bankers Life survey found that middle-income boomers had increased their contributions in employer retirement programs but still felt they would come up short in having enough money to retire. "Uncovered health care expenses (80 percent), inflation (79 percent) and living longer than their money lasts (71 percent) are the top three financial concerns that middle-income boomers have about retirement," the survey stated.

Asked what they expected their retirements to be like, boomers projected huge differences between their experiences and their perceptions of how previous generations had fared in retirement. In financial terms, at least, the Silent Generation (people born between 1925 and 1942) had nothing to squawk about because it retired with pensions and other sources of guaranteed income.

[See: 10 Key Retirement Ages to Plan For.]

Here is how middle-income boomers feel about 15 expectations about retired life, including how they think their outlooks differ from earlier generations of retirees. In a dozen instances, there were big differences between the two sets of perceptions. Data is from 2011.

Attribute My Retirement Previous Generations % Change
Keeping up with technology 77% 8% +69
Working 78% 16% +62
Staying physically fit/healthy living 81% 27% +54
Learning a new skill 60% 21% +39
Reinventing oneself 54% 18% +36
Going back to school 35% 19% +16
Starting or furthering one's business 37% 22% +15
Volunteering 58% 58% 0
Spending time with family and friends 68% 70% -2
Travel 61% 67% -6
Pursuing traditional retirement hobbies 48% 74% -26
Being at home, watching TV, relaxing 48% 75% -27
Moving to a retirement community 24% 62% -38
Slowing down 35% 77% -42
Being taken care of by family 15% 69% -54

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