The New Retirement

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One of the programs I’m most proud of from my time at Sun Life Financial is the Unretirement Index. Dean Connor, who at the time led the Canadian organization, asked my team and me to develop a study that dug into people’s plans and expectations for retirement.

We went in with a simple hypothesis. Baby boomers would transform retirement, just as they had so many social conventions over the years. Given how many Canadians in that demographic identify so personally with their work, why wouldn’t white-collar professionals keep doing what they do after 65? Hence the term, unretirement.

My team prepared the first annual survey over the summer of 2008. Little did we know that the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression would coincide with its fielding. There we were, asking Canadians about what age they expected to retire at the same time televisions across the country screamed about a financial apocalypse.

What seemed a disaster at the time, turned out to be an extraordinary research opportunity. In the years that followed, we tracked the evolving views of Canadians about retirement in light of the crisis. By 2011, the average adult expected not to fully retire until 69.

While our hypothesis held up, it was clear that economic factors were also driving unretirement. Among Canadians who said they expected to be working at 66, 61% said they’d do so because they need to and 39% because they want to.

New research from Aon confirms that while the anxiety so prevalent in the years immediately following the crisis has largely subsided, there remains a kind of low-grade angst among a lot of Canadians about their financial future.

The firm’s Global DC and Financial Wellbeing Employee Survey delivers useful insights into the views of Canadians who are lucky enough to have employer-sponsored defined contribution (DC) retirement plans. While not a representative sample of the broader working population, it’s not a bad proxy.

A few highlights from this year’s edition:

  • 30% “expect to continue working forever in some capacity.”
  • 29% “do not feel they are saving enough for long term needs.”
  • Nearly half say “their outstanding debts prevent them from saving for retirement.”
  • Two-thirds contribute less than 10% of pay to their DC retirement plan.

“The reality is that for most people, retirement will be different than in previous generations – likely starting at older ages and incorporating phased or flexible arrangements,” according to the report. “Our research shows that retiring in your 70s – or not at all – will become increasingly common.”

Two takeaways.

First that debt stat is neither surprising nor necessarily bad news. While I’m not a fan of delaying retirement savings until your home mortgage is paid off, it’s hard to argue against clearing credit card and other high-interest debt before saving for long-term goals.

Second, if you do have a retirement plan at work, take full advantage of whatever employer-match it offers. Aon found that only 78% of respondents have signed up for the plan their employer sponsors. And 41% of those who have access to an employer-match don’t take full advantage. If your boss is prepared to match the first $100 you save for retirement each month, take it. Take all of it. Save more if you can. Just don’t miss out on free money.

Kevin Press

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