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Working Longer To Fix The Retirement Mess

Are you willing to postpone retirement by two to four years? If you want to enjoy a secure, prosperous retirement, delaying it may be the best way to get there, according to a book recently published by the Brookings Institution Press. Working Longer: The Solution to the Retirement Income Challenge offers a sobering yet hopeful message to Americans approaching retirement age at a time of soaring health care costs, declining pensions, severely weakened retirement accounts, and shaky prospects for Social Security.

Authors Alicia H. Munnell, professor of management sciences at Boston College, and Steven A. Sass, associate director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, argue that raising the average retirement age from 63 to 66 would solve many of the financial problems retirees are facing. “The key is to avoid drawing on your Social Security benefits or 401(k) plan until age 67,” says Sass. Allowing your retirement assets to grow just a few years longer can significantly boost your assets, and delaying retirement means a shorter period during which you’ll have to depend on retirement savings.

The nice thing about this strategy is that it won’t necessarily mean enjoying fewer years of post-work life. Because life expectancy has soared while the average age of retirement has fallen, merely moving back the start could still afford you decades of doing whatever you have planned. Consider these numbers:

  • The average life expectancy for a 55-year-old man in 1965 was 20 years; by 2005, it had risen to 25 years.
  • For women at 55, life expectancy rose from 25 years in 1965 to 29 years in 2005. 
  • About 19% of men and 33% of women who survive to age 65 today will live to age 90 or older.

Meanwhile, the average retirement age for Americans fell from 65 in the mid-1960s to 63 in the 1980s, where it remains today. A major reason is that workers may start receiving Social Security benefits at age 62, even though beginning then, rather than waiting until full retirement age, reduces the amount of the monthly payments you’ll receive. And while Social Security’s official retirement age is gradually rising from 66 to 67, the government has opted to leave the earliest eligibility age (EEA) at 62. Sass and Munnell believe the government should push back the EEA to age 64 to encourage people to remain in the work force longer.

The declining U.S. savings rate is another strong argument for staying on the job a few additional years, suggests Sass. “For baby boomers, it’s getting a little late to save,” he says. “They don’t have that much money in their 401(k) plans. Working longer is probably the best option.”

Sass notes that the amount of your Social Security benefit is calculated using the 35 highest-paid years of your working life. “By delaying retirement, very often you’ll replace a zero- or low-earnings year and actually increase your benefit level,” he says. Moreover, each year you wait before starting Social Security payments will boost the amount. Work four years longer, Sass estimates, and you’ll increase your monthly check by a third.

Consider a man who made an average of $150,000 a year during his highest-paid 35 years at work. If, rather than retiring at age 62, he keeps going four more years at that same average salary, his benefits will go up more than 30% compared with what he would have received at 62, not taking inflation into account, Sass says.

If the same man had earned an average of $150,000 but had worked only 31 years, his 35-year Social Security average would be lower. (The exact figure is calculated based on the Social Security wage base limit, which is indexed annually and stands at $106,800 in 2010.) Retiring at age 66 instead of 62 would add four more years to the average (at the wage base limit), thus increasing his benefits somewhat more than the automatic 30%.

For a person earning an average salary of $40,000 a year, adding four more years to a 31-year average would make the increase in benefits rise from 30% to 45%, Sass said. For higher earners to receive a similar extra boost, the wage base limit would have to be increased significantly above the $106,800 level.

The recent meltdown in the stock market just adds one more reason to think about delaying retirement by a few years. Most nest eggs have suffered, and to begin withdrawals from a beaten-down retirement account may sharply reduce the size of annual distributions that can be taken without depleting the account during a long retirement. We can revisit your retirement plan with you and help you choose a retirement age that will support your goal of a long and comfortable life after work.


This article was written by a professional financial journalist for Legend Financial Advisors, Inc. and is not intended as legal or investment advice.

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