Retirement boom? Not likely

Financially fueled by years of working and saving, baby boomers are a healthy and wealthy spending bloc soon to be consumed by enviable retirements built around leisurely recreations.

At least, that's the popular financial stereotype.

Joseph Dalton wants to hear none of it. In a good month, he squeaks out a makeshift income fixing trucks for maybe $400 a week. Retirement is a pleasant-sounding pipe dream to him.

"I'll stay working as long as I can," says Mr. Dalton, who is in his late 40s, sitting at a La Grange, Ga., gas-station cafe on a slow day. "A lot of people, especially around here, they retire but they don't have the money to do anything."

That scenario is likely to become more prevalent as aging boomers who have spent their lives scraping by realize that – just because they're moving toward retirement age – giving up the 9-to-5 isn't an option.

"In an affluent, humane society, older persons ought to have a real choice whether they work or not," says Stephen Brobeck, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America, which has joined America Saves, a campaign to prod people to save more. "But increasingly, there's the threat of many seniors being forced to work until they're disabled."

That's what clouds the future agendas of people such as 56-year-old Charlie Blender of Peoria, Ill. He works a range of jobs to make ends meet: full-time as a maintenance mechanic at a printing plant, part-time as a carpenter, and part-time at his wife's office-cleaning business.

"[My father] worked for a company for 30 years, retired when he was 59 and lived happily ever. But it doesn't work like that anymore."

Most experts say that as people such as Mr. Blender age, they'll redefine retirement with new job configurations – out of financial necessity in many cases.

Puny savings has become a predicament for many.

In a January survey, less than 25 percent of workers age 40 to 59 had saved $100,000 or more, according to responses from 1,000 people interviewed for the Employee Benefit Research Institute and the American Savings Education Council.

Only a third of workers in that age group said they had tried to figure how much money they'll need in retirement. Other research shows people continue to underestimate the amount of money they'll need after retiring, says Elizabeth Jetton, a certified financial planner in Atlanta.

"You don't change who you are just because you're retired," she says.

Despite some high-profile corporate bankruptcies and a rocky stock market over the past two years, boomers are the most affluent generation in US history, with the highest standard of living ever. But boomers are dealing with two issues their parents never faced: far larger spending habits and a trend toward longer life spans.

And regardless of income, boomers have been on a buying binge for most of their lives, propelled by a belief that the fiscal future would be bright and advertising that stoked their desire for more possessions, Ms. Jetton says.

"Debt has just been a real tragedy to the baby boomers," Jetton says. "What we have to do is find where their sense of 'enough' is. Otherwise, you just get more and more and it's never going to be enough."

Assessing his father's financial ways, Blender sees the generational differences starkly: "You live paycheck to paycheck," he says. "Back then, you only had one car per family. And you took maybe one trip. Most people around here took one vacation a year – they went up to Minnesota and went fishing. Now they go to New York, or Atlanta, for a weekend.

"I go to a NASCAR race and it costs $400 or $500, and my father never dreamed of going to a race."

Where to receive federal government help with retiree issues

Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation

The FDIC can answer questions about retirement accounts and your rights, particularly regarding how accounts at banks and other savings institutions are insured. 877-275 3342; www.fdic.gov

Internal Revenue Service

The IRS can assist with tax-related questions, including questions about taxes on retirement-account withdrawals. 800-829-1040; www.irs.gov

Social Security Administration

This agency can provide information about Social Security benefits, including how to file a claim. 800-772-1213; www.ssa.gov

Pension and Welfare Benefits Administration

This arm of the Labor Department responds to inquiries about pension rights. 866-275-7922; www.dol.gov/dol/pwba

The Federal Consumer Information Center

This organization is a clearinghouse for free and low-cost booklets published by various federal agencies. 888-878-3256; www.pueblo.gsa.gov

Source: FDIC Consumer News

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