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Retirement Planning > Retirement Investing

Harvard Poll: Stark Differences Between Retirement Expectation, Reality

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One in four retirees think life in retirement is worse than it was before they retired, according to a poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard School of Public Health released Tuesday. The poll shows stark differences between what pre-retirees think retirement will be like, and what retirees say is actually the case.

A large majority of retirees say life in retirement is the same (44%) or better (29%) than it was during the five years before they retired. Many retirees say their stress is less, their relationships with loved ones are better, their diet is improved, and the amount of time they spend doing favorite activities is increased.

And yet, 25% of retirees say life is worse.

“The poll shows that a significant number of people who are near retirement may be underestimating the challenges of retirement,” said Robert Blendon, professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health, in a statement. “When you compare what people think retirement will be like with what retirees say it actually is like, there are big differences. Pre-retirees may underestimate the degree to which their health and finances may be worse in retirement.”

Only 14% of pre-retirees predict that life overall will be worse when they retire, compared to the 25% of retirees who say it actually is worse. Only 13% of pre-retirees thought their health would be worse, while 39% of retirees say it actually is. Less than a quarter of pre-retirees (22%) predict their financial situation will be worse, while a third of retirees (35%) sayit actually is.

Findings also show that pre-retirees expect to retire later than those who are already retired, and some expect never to fully retire. A sizeable majority of pre-retirees (60%) expect to retire at age 65 or older, while only 26% of current retirees polled said they retired at age 65 or older. More than one in 10 pre-retirees (15%) say they never expect to fully retire.

Other key findings from the poll include:

  • About three in 10 pre-retirees and retirees expect to live into their 90s or beyond (29% for pre-retirees; 32% for current retirees).
  • A majority of both groups say their overall health in retirement is or will be better than that of people in their parents’ generation (58% pre-retirees; 53% retirees).
  • A substantial minority of pre-retirees say it is very likely they will have trouble paying for health care insurance premiums (31%) or long-term care (30%). About one in four pre-retirees (27%) say it is very likely they will have trouble paying overall medical bills or paying for needed medications (24%).
  • Pre-retirees are less confident that Medicare will provide benefits of at least equal value to current benefits than retirees are (38% pre-retirees; 52% retirees).
  • More pre-retirees than retirees want major changes in the Medicare program (47% pre-retirees; 32% retirees).
  • Just 22% of pre-retirees say their financial situation will be worse in retirement, but 35% of people who are already retired say it is worse.

More than half of pre-retirees (54%) who are now planning to retire later than they were when they were in their 40s say the primary reason for the delay is that they do not feel they can afford it financially. Further, 51% of people who say that they will never fully retire say they do not feel they can afford to retire.


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