Forget plush retirements -- many boomers looking at meager golden years

Posted: Friday, June 21, 2002

LaGRANGE, Ga. (AP) -- 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 vague, pleasant-sounding pipe dream to him.

''I'll stay working as long as I can,'' said Dalton, 47, sipping coffee at a La Grange gas station cafe because his business was so slow. ''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 old-age agendas of people such as 56-year-old Charlie Blender of Peoria, Ill. He works a panoply 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.

''It all depends on your health,'' Blender said. ''If your health goes to heck, then you say, 'Well, I'm not going to be able to do this anymore.'

''I look at my dad. He worked for a company for 30 years, retired when he was 59 and lived happily ever. But it doesn't work like that anymore.''

So Blender will keep working for as long as possible.

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

''Retire? I'm going to work until I die,'' said James Brown, 42, an employee of a small grocery store in Atlanta. With a meager salary, Brown said, saving isn't an option. ''Especially if you got a girlfriend -- she takes it all,'' he sighed.

Puny savings has become a predicament for many.

In a January survey, less than 25 percent of workers ages 40-59 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, said Elizabeth Jetton, a certified financial planner in Atlanta.

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

Despite some high-profile corporate bankruptcies and a rocky stock market the last two years, boomers are the most affluent generation in U.S. history, with the highest standard of living ever. But boomers are dealing with two issues their parents never faced: far larger spending habits and medical advances likely to stretch lifespans by as much as two decades.

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, Jetton said.

Last month, a coalition of consumer and credit union associations released a report concluding that a quarter of U.S. households were ''wealth-poor,'' with assets totaling less than $10,000.

Debt now plays an enduring role in boomers' finances and the blessing of good health can put some middle class people into poverty years after retirement.

''Debt has just been a real tragedy to the baby boomers,'' Jetton said. ''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 said. ''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.''

Still, Blender remains upbeat about his finances: ''If you ain't got it, why worry about it?''

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