The age wave has at last reached shore. In 2008, baby boomers begin turning 62–old enough to draw Social Security. This horde born between 1946 and 1964, all 78 million of them, are the best educated and wealthiest generation ever. They’ve reinvented each stage of life as they’ve reached it, from emptying toy stores of coonskin caps to creating senior colleges.
If only that meant they had their finances in order.
A financial planner I know likes to say that many boomers have a one-word plan for retirement: “Don’t.” Noting that 80% of boomers say they’ll continue to work, he points out, “Today, only 19% of people over 65 are actually working. Forty percent are too sick, and 41% can’t find a job.”
In a Money survey last year, 90% of boomers said they hadn’t done a great deal of retirement planning. Yet 59% thought they’d be able to maintain their standard of living in retirement.
Similarly, when a 2007 Lincoln Retirement Institute survey asked baby boomers and retirees to imagine themselves in the future, 60% of those polled were confident they wouldn’t run out of money in retirement.
It was the same story in 2005, when research sponsored by OppenheimerFunds found many boomers acknowledging that they would enter retirement with more debt than their predecessors, fueled by high credit card balances, more expensive homes, and luxury purchases–yet less than half of them wished they had saved more for retirement. “When it comes to baby boomers and financial planning, there is a striking contrast between perception and reality,” dryly observed John V. Murphy, the fund company CEO.
You as the Bearer of Bad Tidings
Clearly, baby boomers need your help. But it won’t be easy coaxing them into your office or persuading them to make changes that will ensure a more pleasant future.
One of the reasons why so many of them are woefully unprepared for their old age may be that they can’t envision it. “In a recent U.S. survey,” reports a Today’s Seniors Network article, “when asked to define ‘old age,’ most boomers quoted an age three years above the country’s average age of death.”
Pre-retirees also tend to greatly underestimate medical costs in retirement–a scary symptom of what Heather Otto, president of the board of the Tucson, Arizona, YWCA, calls “our national healthcare mess.” Otto e-mailed me that she and her husband, retired for three years, now pay 10 times as much for health insurance as they did while working. She wonders if there will be resources to help boomers when they need medical assistance in their old age, or if their children will be burdened with their care.
Boomers who do consult you are likely to be in a perilous financial position. They’re spending more than previous generations and often caring for aging parents or supporting grown children as well. How will you tell one of these clients, “You can’t afford to quit your job now. You’ll have to keep working until you’re 75?” Or “If you keep paying your son’s support (or your mother’s at-home care), you’ll have nothing left for your own future?” Or “Unless you cut your spending immediately and save four times as much as you do now, you’ll probably go broke before you die?”
The Third Age: Achievement to Fulfillment
Sociology professor William Sadler views life as having four ages. The First Age focuses on preparing for adulthood. Achievement is the major theme in the Second Age, with an emphasis on security, belonging, and status. The Third Age centers on fulfillment, and the Fourth Age on completion.
Acknowledging the “terrible associations” that our society has with middle age, Dr. Sadler reminded me that recent brain research indicates that in people’s later years, their minds often work better. If they stay mentally active, the brain grows new neurons and the right and left hemispheres collaborate more effectively. As a result, boomers can be expected to shape their Third Age with a high degree of creativity and productivity. He and James Krefft suggest ways to do it in Changing Course: Navigating Life After 50 (Center for Third Age Leadership Press, 2008).
Finances are certainly an important factor in this equation, since boomers need to be sure they don’t outlive their money. But as I heard from Dorian Mintzer, a personal and professional coach and psychotherapist in Boston who specializes in ‘”boomers and beyond,” he believes that “financial planners need to be part of a more integrated life-plan model. Not only do they need to help their clients with the financial piece, but they need to [collaborate with] coaches and life planners so that they help their clients deal with the whole picture of their bonus years.”
You can’t do your best for boomer clients unless you’re aware of your feelings toward the experience of aging, retirement, and boomers themselves. When I sat in on an online discussion organized and moderated by Mintzer, I found myself disapproving of boomers who retire and do nothing but play golf. In my view, they should be giving back to society in some fashion, not just enjoying themselves.
Several other therapists and coaches in the discussion felt the same way. We told ourselves that many burnt-out workers need to relax and just “be,” after a lifetime of doing. In all probability, these folks would eventually be interested in making a difference. We weren’t really at ease thinking that some boomers might just want to relax and not care at all about giving back.
If I were a golf-playing retiree, I would want my coach or financial advisor to be able to give me advice that wasn’t colored by prejudices like these. So I encourage you to reflect on boomer and aging issues before you’re faced with tough decisions involving boomer clients. Here are some of the questions to ask yourself:
How do I feel about my own aging: positive, depressed, wistful?
What are my fears and dreams for my 60s and beyond?
How do I feel about my boomer clients? Am I excited to work with them, or do I dread the experience?
Do I have any preconceptions about what they should be doing in their 60s and beyond?
Meeting Them Where They Live
Looking for ways to align with boomers’ aspirations and passions, I explored the work of other coaches, authors, and researchers who have analyzed how members of this group are reshaping their future. Their work may suggest new ways for you to connect with boomers’ hearts and minds.
Catherine Fitzgerald, PhD, principal of Fitzgerald Consulting and founder of Sagience LLC, a company that focuses on helping boomers optimize their vitality and intellectual and spiritual development, posits that as adolescents, baby boomers realized that their parents’ recipes for success and happiness were no longer valid. Without role models, they were forced to redefine each phase of life as they entered it. The upside was (and is) tremendous creativity and innovation, but the downside was tremendous anxiety.
There’s certainly cause for anxiety when it comes to boomers’ financial security. The question is, how can you help them harness their penchant for innovation to create life changes that make their future more secure?
The Work Till They Drop Approach
The images of geezers and geezerettes strolling hand in hand on the beach, bicycling, or teeing off together are relatively recent, created by advertisers to sell retirement communities and cholesterol medication. I’ve found that most retirees don’t buy into these pictures. Even those who have said they want to “do nothing” when they retire often find themselves bored and longing for more social, intellectual, and emotional stimulation.
As we know, work can give people a sense of purpose and meaning, and many boomers intend to be productive until their last breath. Even if they don’t need the income, 60% to 80% of them plan to keep working during their “retirement” years. To assist these quasi-retirees, Jeri Sedlar and Rick Miners, a husband-and-wife team with 25 years of experience in helping people transition to more rewarding personal and professional occupations, have identified a five-step process to search for “fulfilling work that fuels your passion, suits your personality, and fills your pocket.” In their book, Don’t Retire, REWIRE! (Alpha, 2007), they provide a list of questions to help readers identify what motivations drive them, then offer a guide to finding types of work characterized by those particular drivers.
Dealing with Loss, Embracing Change
Another concern that recent retiree Heather Otto often addresses in her blog (onretirement.blogspot.com) is the baby boom generation’s tendency to deny aging and death. As time goes on, they must increasingly deal with disability and disease, the death of loved ones, friends, and colleagues, and rumblings of their own mortality.
As holistic physician Dr. Bernie Siegel used to say, even joggers and vegetarians die. We boomers laugh at this somewhat uncomfortably, reminded that all our efforts to live a healthier life really won’t make us immortal.
Coping with life’s losses is even harder for boomers because nothing has ever seemed impossible to them, from heart bypasses to moon landings to cars that park themselves. Hit with the death of a child or the illness of a spouse, they may well consult you in the throes of anger, denial, or another of the K? 1/4 bler-Ross stages of grief. The better you understand the grieving process (see “The Mourning After” in IA December 2007), the more successfully you can help them through their losses.
As a boomer journeying through retirement, Otto also mentioned her concern about social isolation. Many older boomers live in large houses separated from others, with long hours of work taking the place of neighborly interaction. After retirement, one member of a couple often resists leaving their home and joining a community where services, activities, and new neighbors could help minimize isolation. Widows and widowers, especially, often cling to familiar surroundings despite their new loneliness.
Balancing Urgency With Patience
Clearly, the challenges boomers face are widely diverse, since they’re not a homogeneous group. Most of them are interested in disseminating their values as a legacy for their children and society at large, while taking good care of themselves. Those on the later end of the wave may still have young children, while the oldest boomers are likely to be empty-nesters. Some are grandparents; others have adult children moving back home, and more than a few are the “sandwich generation,” supporting elderly parents as well as their own children or grandchildren.
In speaking to advisors, coaches, therapists, counselors, and others who specialize in working with retirees and boomers, I heard over and over that it’s critical to tune in to a client’s personal mode of learning, working, and living. For example, when I shared with an artist friend of mine some of the planning steps I find useful, such as imagining what you want your “retirement” years to be like, she immediately responded, “That would make me anxious and shut me down. What works for me is having a lot of time and space to go inside, be with myself, and wait to see what the next right step is for me.”
It’s tempting to dive right into a situation to make the bleeding of assets stop or savings balances grow faster, and you may find it difficult to give a client like this the time to wait for clarity to emerge. But it’s important not to get too far ahead of her. An overly structured approach with deep and probing questions could make her bolt, despite the good advice that accompanies it.
The Number: Power… or Panic?
The words “aging,” “retirement,” and even “financial planning” strike most boomers with feelings of anxiety and dread, says Helen Dennis, a specialist on aging, employment, and retirement who co-wrote Project Renewment: The First Retirement Model for Career Women with Bernice Bratter (Scribner Books, 2008). She points out that far from spurring baby boomers into action, a warning about how ill-prepared they are can scare them so badly that they lose any motivation to act.
I tend to agree. In my experience, hitting someone with the news that they need to save $2 million by age 65 (or any other mega-amount) is more likely to panic than empower them. There’s a good chance they’ll lose heart and sink into despair.
No matter how accurate your calculations are or how apt your proposed action steps, you risk losing your client’s trust unless you build the relationship first. You need to understand where these folks are coming from, what motivates them, and what dreams fuel their imagination and their energy. My advice:
1. Ask what comes to mind when you say the word “retirement.” Let them free associate to see what concepts and images–positive or negative–emerge.
2. Take time to listen to them deeply, thoughtfully, and with compassion.
3. Ask what plans and ideas they have for their future. Help them flesh out the details as fully as they can.
4. What challenges do they see ahead for themselves? This can lead to a discussion about changes they may have to make to meet these challenges.
5. What concerns do they have? What is it that keeps them awake at night?
6. What is their most positive vision of their Third Age?
7. How do they feel about quitting work? How would they like their worklife to evolve?
8. What are their values? What truly matters to them?
9. What would they like the world to know about them after they’re gone? What legacy would they like to pass on to others? If they don’t have clear answers, suggest that they write an ideal autobiography or fantasy obituary.
In this conversation, try to tune into your clients’ pacing. How slow or fast do they tend to move toward action? How do they process decisions about their goals? Ask questions that request feedback, such as “How is this going for you? Is the pace right for you? Are we going too fast, or not fast enough?”
Author, speaker, and coach Ted Klontz, PhD, teaches the art of “exquisite listening” to clients. When you give this kind of attention to boomers who talk about their fear of impoverishment, incapacitation, or abandonment, it can encourage them to heed your suggestions about how to minimize unnecessary stress, accept difficulties with grace and courage, and stay as vibrant and healthy as possible.
It may take some time to find out where a boomer client is coming from. If you make compassionate and exquisite listening the cornerstone of your relationship, the rest will follow.
When I turned 60 last year, one of my close friends gave me a useful and fun book, 60 Things to Do When You Turn 60, edited by Ronnie Sellers (Sellers Publishing, 2006), an anthology of advice from famous and not-so-famous folks about how to thrive in the next decade of life. The title reminded me of how diverse we boomers are, and how much we yearn to explore our Third Age with positive energy. I have so many ideas and fantasies about my own future that this goal has at times seemed overwhelming.
With the prospect of 30-plus years ahead, coupled with financial resources that may not measure up to their dreams, many boomers are in real need of guidance. You’ll be called on to help them prepare for the worst, such as a health crisis or difficulty finding well-paying work, while simultaneously urging them to envision and plan for the best.
When your advice calls for uncomfortable behavioral changes, different individuals will need different degrees of control and limit-setting to succeed. But as you learn about their fears, concerns, dreams, and goals, and discern how they operate internally, I believe you will be able to help your boomer clients create new life patterns for their retirement years.
Olivia Mellan, a speaker, coach, and business consultant, is the author with Sherry Christie of The Advisor’s Guide to Money Psychology, available from the Investment Advisor Bookstore at www.investmentadvisor.com. She also offers money psychology teleclasses for financial advisors and for the general public. E-mail Olivia at firstname.lastname@example.org.