From the February 2011 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

Confusion in the Boomer Space

Boomers are optimistic or pessimistic – just depends on who you ask

In a demographic that comprises approximately 78 million people, there's bound to be some disparity in sentiment. A survey released Wednesday by AARP found boomers who are about to turn 65 are generally optimistic. The Pew Research Center, however, earlier in the week found boomers to be the most pessimistic of any age group.

"The key difference is the AARP survey focused narrowly on retirement," says Mathew Greenwald (left), president of Mathew Greenwald & Associates. What's troubling is the level of optimism reported in the AARP survey may be based on "wishful thinking."

According to AARP, 2.5 million boomers will turn 65 in 2011, and 17% of adults will be over 65. At the end of 2011, 41 million people will be 65 or older. The organization surveyed 801 boomers who will turn 65 in 2011 and found that 78% are "satisfied with the way things are going in their lives today," and 70% say they have achieved "all or most" of their goals.

But, Greenwald argues, a lot of data shows boomers have undersaved for retirement. He points to data from the Joint Economic Committee which shows that without Social Security, half of elderly women would be below the poverty line.

Greenwald draws a distinction between boomers being able to live comfortably in retirement, and just scraping by. According to the Retirement Confidence Survey conducted by Mathew Greenwald & Associates in 2010, 46% of respondents reported feeling "not too or not at all confident" about their ability to live comfortably in retirement. By comparison, 25% said they weren't confident they'd be able to pay living expenses.

The AARP survey noted that the way boomers describe their feelings about the next five years hasn't changed much between the current survey and the 2006 survey, attributing it to "inherent optimism" among boomers.

The boomers AARP surveyed appear to be relatively realistic about their longevity; the average age respondents said they were likely to live to was 85.2 years old. The average age they want to live to is just slightly older at 88.7 years.

About 40% of boomers said their financial security and health was what they expected it to be at this point in their lives. Previous surveys found 70% of boomers expected to work past the age of 65, but the current survey found 54% are already retired. Among 31% of respondents who are currently employed, 35% have retired from a previous career. Almost half of those still working, though, said they plan to quit as soon as they can.

Greenwald noted that affluent boomers tend to like their jobs more, and have a desire to work longer that isn't necessarily tied to having to work longer.

One point respondents from both surveys agreed on is their perception of Washington, D.C. In the AARP survey, 63% of respondents said the government does less for the country than it did when they were 60. Over three-quarters said the government is less civil, and 56% said Democrats and Republicans are less likely to work together to get things done. Sixty percent said they were less confident that the government will "do the right thing."

While the AARP survey focused on boomers' attitudes toward retirement, the Pew study looked more closely at their attitudes toward their lives in general. Among the 1,500 adults surveyed by the Pew Research Center, 80% of those between 46 and 64 say they are "dissatisfied" with the direction the country is headed, followed by 76% of respondents 65 and older.

Data from a May survey by Pew found 21% of boomers said their standard of living was below that of their parents at their age, compared with 14% of non-boomer adults. The May survey also found 34% of boomers said their children's standard of living would be even lower when they reached middle age.

Matt Thornhill, president of The Boomer Project, warned against reading too much into the differences in the two studies.

"The reports ask different questions," he says. Furthermore, the Pew study compares boomers to other generations, which is "interesting, but not relevant because younger generations are not 65."

Additionally, both reports surveyed respondents across all income levels, while advisors typically work with wealthier clients, Thornhill added. Those respondents at lower income levels who are struggling more than high-income respondents will affect the overall sentiment reported in the survey.

The key things advisors need to focus on, according to Mathew Greenwald, is to assess how much clients need to maintain they lifestyle they want while retirement is still five to 10 years in the future, and to adjust their risk allocation accordingly. Furthermore, when clients are ready to retire, they need to know when the best time to claim Social Security is; claiming benefits and stopping work don’t have to coincide, Greenwald says.

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