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Reality Check: Will Your Life Be Better in Retirement?


One in four retirees say their lives are worse now than before they retired, according to a poll released today by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Harvard School of Public Health and National Public Radio.

The findings show sharp contrasts between workers’ expectations for retirement and what retirees say they actually experience. Some 1,254 adults over 50 were interviewed by phone from July 25 to Aug. 18, including 755 retirees and 409 pre-retirees. The margin of error was about 3 percentage points.

Among the findings:

A large majority of retirees say life in retirement is the same (44%) or better (29%) than in the five years before they retired. Many say they have lower stress levels, better relationships, improved diet and more time for favorite activities, according to the poll results.

Still, 25% say life is worse. And only 14% of pre-retirees expect that.

The situation’s much the same on the health front: 13% of pre-retirees expect their health to worsen, but 39% of retirees say it is. About three in 10 pre-retirees and retirees expect to live into their 90s – or beyond.

Pre-retirees may be overly optimistic about their nest eggs as well. Only 22% of pre-retirees say that their financial situation will be worse, while 35% of retirees say it is.

People who are still working expect to retire later than those already in retirement – and some say they never will fully retire. Some 60% expect to be at least 65 when they retire – but only 26% of those now retired waited that long to do so.

Finances play a big role in the decision to postpone or shun retirement. The primary reason for delay among 54% of pre-retirees who now plan to retire later than they did in their 40s is that they feel they can’t afford it. And 51% of those who say they’ll never fully retire say their lack of savings is the reason. (Test out your spending assumptions using our retirement calculator.)

Medicare, the government health program for people 65 and older, isn’t seen as rock-solid either. Among pre-retirees, 38% are “less confident” that Medicare will provide benefits of at least equal value to what retirees currently get.

And about a third of both pre-retirees and current retires say that waiting two more years to get Medicare benefits would be, or would have been, a major problem for them and their families.

For more information on the study, visit rwjf.org, hsph.harvard.edu and npr.org.

How do these views match up with your own experiences?


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    • My wife and I are 3 years into (voluntary and planned) retirement. Is it the totally carefree life of leisure we hoped for? No, of course not – but it’s a lot better than the 9-to-5 grind of working life. Successful retirement requires planning, educating yourself on options and programs, and yes, sacrifice. You must make the (almost always) difficult commitment to SAVE money while you are working, no matter how your “lifestyle” is impacted. The earlier you start saving, and the more you save, the better off you will when you stop working. Plan on taking care of yourself – don’t think the (federal or state) government will provide for your every need and want – we can all see how that is working out. There are way too many variables to really come up with a foolproof retirement plan, but IF you have saved a substantial personal nest egg, and reduced your debt load as much as possible (preferably to zero), then you will at least have a fighting chance of enjoying a comfortable retirement.

    • Amen Eric. Ron, get your own.

    • Those who think retirement is worse than working must not work in the same environment that I do! Two years and 10 months to go, but who’s counting?

    • True success is measured in the number of iPads one can own.

    • The “wonderful” greatest generation used up SS and Medicare leaving nothing for the future generations. Thanks for saving the world and sinking the country.

About Encore

  • Encore examines the changing nature of retirement, from new rules and guidelines for financial security to the shifting identities and priorities of today’s retirees. The blog also explores news that affects retirement, from the Wall Street Journal Digital Network and around the web. Lead bloggers are reporter Catey Hill and senior editor Jeremy Olshan. Other contributors include The Wall Street Journal’s retirement columnists Glenn Ruffenach and Anne Tergesen; the Director for the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, Alicia Munnell; and the Director of Research for Pinnacle Advisory Group, Michael Kitces, CFP.