Americans pride themselves on being optimistic. But Robert Blendon, of the Harvard School of Public Health, says that may not be such a good thing when it comes to planning for retirement. For many Americans, it is proving harder than they imagined, according to a a new poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health.
"People thinking about retirement don't envision any of the potential problems that they could face," he says. "But you have to face up to them, because otherwise it's very hard just when events start happening to respond."
The survey results suggest the main problems people encounter are money and health. A third of retirees say their finances are worse than before retirement; even more report deteriorating health. Such things may seem predictable. But the survey also polled pre-retirees, age 50 and older, and found they greatly underestimate the chances of either problem.
"I didn't give it a lot of thought, to be very honest with you," says Wanda George, who took part in the poll. She's 71, lives in Las Vegas and has been retired since a car accident forced her to go on disability at age 59.
After raising four kids, George managed a beauty salon and did have a 401(k). She says it seemed to be doing pretty well. But after she stopped working, she had to tap into that money to pay for health insurance. She says her late husband didn't put much away for retirement, so she's now getting by only on Social Security.
"I had a really nice home," George says. "I couldn't afford that. Even going out to eat, it's no longer the nicer places. You go to the cheaper places. Clothing, when you buy it you have to wait for sales, which is OK, but you just do not have much of a choice."
Joe Hanyok, of Chardon, Ohio, did plan well for retirement. He had a couple of 401(k)s, a pension, plus a home he owned. He felt in good shape. Of course, the bad economy's been tough.
"With this last drop in the market, I think my 401(k)s are down 20, 25 percent," he says.
Still, Hanyok's health is good. But his mother's health isn't. So Hanyok, at 63, cares for her full time. Like many others in the poll, his lifestyle isn't what he imagined.
"Oh, I expected when I retired that I would be able to travel and visit friends," he says. "I have friends in St. Louis, and California, down in Florida, and travel is completely out of the picture now. I just can't afford to get away."
Hanyok says his mother would need expensive, round-the-clock care in his absence, something his budget — though it is decent — doesn't allow.
Although we think of 65 as the traditional retirement age, by far most retirees today stopped working before then. But the poll suggests that a generational shift is under way. Harvard's Blendon says pollsters asked people to think back to their 40s, and see if they'd delayed the age they expected to retire. Not many of today's retirees had.
"But of those who hadn't retired," he says, "essentially 39 percent, or 4 in 10, have moved the age forward that they're going to retire. Over half of them say the lead reason is, 'I can't afford to retire.' "
And some say they don't envision ever being able to stop working. Blendon says there's an important message here, especially for younger people.
"If you anticipate it, you can do things to try to improve your level of health over time," he says. "You can try to make your financial situation somewhat better in retirement if you realize that you are at risk for some things actually going worse."
Heeding that warning could add a silver lining to feeling pessimistic about the future.