Average retirement age creeping ever higher
February 02, 2014 1:35 AM

In just a few days, Jay Leno, 63, host of the “Tonight” show for the past 22 years, will be ceding his comedic throne to 39-year-old Jimmy Fallon.

Not willingly, as it happens.

“It’s not my decision,” Leno said during a Jan. 26 interview with Steve Kroft of “60 Minutes.”

Leno’s reluctance to leave his job — for the second time, no less — echoes the sentiments of many baby boomers, who were born between 1946 and 1964.

Although the average age at which current U.S. retirees say they stopped working is 61, up from 59 in 2003 and 57 in 1993, a January Gallup poll of 1,929 members of that generation found that 49 percent didn’t expect to retire until age 66 or older. Ten percent expected never to clock out for good — assuming they had a choice.

Many don’t, of course. While the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 prohibits companies from discriminating against employees 40 or older because of their age (firefighters and police officers are exempt from this requirement), in 2012 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received 22,857 charges of age discrimination, up from 19,921 a decade earlier.

“Companies are metric-centric,” said Roy L. Cohen, a career coach and author of the “Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide.”

“They base salary and bonus and even head-count decisions on how significant an employee’s contribution is to the bottom line.

“So if there is a reduction in force, and you are older and not a big producer, your neck is on the chopping block.”

Those who do have the choice often have no idea what not working means.

“Retire? I don’t know what that would look like,” said Marcia Cantarella, a 67-year-old consultant in higher education in New York. “I don’t play golf.”

Many baby boomers cite financial concerns as the main reason they aren’t quitting the rat race anytime soon. (Leno, who is reportedly receiving $15 million simply for stepping down before his contract expires in September, is clearly an exception.)

According to the Gallup poll, those who say they have “enough money to do everything” that they want to do predict they’ll retire at 66. Those who do not have sufficient funds say 73 is a more realistic number.

The findings are consistent with what financial experts have been warning: that baby boomers, who are often caring for ailing parents and supporting their fiscally challenged children while trying to navigate their own lives, are in over their heads. Medical problems, mortgages, credit card debt, student loans and the cost of living have taken their toll on many a wallet.

The National Foundation for Credit Counseling, a nonprofit organization whose members offer financial advice and education, says that about 34 percent of the 2 million consumers who came to it for help in 2012 were 55 or older. Thirty percent of those who came in specifically for bankruptcy counseling were older than 55, said Gail Cunningham, a spokeswoman.

With those kinds of obligations, voluntary retirement is out of the question for many.

“I wouldn’t even think of it,” said Victor Owen Schwartz, 55, an importer and distributor of wine and spirits who lives in Manhattan. “My oldest daughter just started college. I’ve got 3 1/2 years of that, plus grad school. My youngest daughter is starting college in two years. How can I retire? It’s definitely not in the picture.”

An extended life span — 77 for men on average, 82 for women, according to the World Health Organization — also figures in the equation.

Baby boomers “are starting to understand that they’re going to live a lot longer in retirement than they thought,” said Olivia S. Mitchell, director of the Pension Research Council at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “Their kids might not be in a position to support them, and the traditional retirement sources of income, namely Social Security and pensions, are not looking very robust.”

That’s putting it mildly: The average Social Security check for a retired worker is a paltry $1,293.83 a month.

Even President Barack Obama acknowledged in his State of the Union address that “a Social Security check often isn’t enough on its own” as he announced “starter” retirement accounts for lower-income workers.

“Many people in my age group missed the boat, because it’s all about 401(k)s and the disappearance of pensions,” said George H. Schofield, a developmental psychologist whose work focuses on life after 50 and who is a member of the baby boom. “People 10 years older than I am were able to take their pensions from long-term employment and retire in the classic way. My age group didn’t get that, and many of us didn’t save enough money on top of it.”

Aside from money worries, there is a more basic reason many baby boomers continue working: because they want to, and, perhaps more important, because they can. In a quarterly report released in October, UBS Wealth Management Americas revealed that most investors don’t feel “old” until they turn 80, up from 60 during their parents’ generation.

Michael Casey, for example, who turns 61 in June, has been a hair colorist in Manhattan for 40 years and is so busy that he doesn’t take on new clients.

“I have a very loyal clientele who’ve been using me for many years,” said Casey, who also works in theater and film and lectures on musical theater. “I enjoy it. I do it more selectively. So, you morph. You discover who you are. It’s not over when you get older; you just develop interests and continue to use them.”

Mitchell of the Wharton School says she believes the country needs to “revisit some of those nudges toward early retirement,” such as being allowed to take out a portion of a 401(k) at 59 1/2 with no penalty or receiving reduced Social Security benefits at 62. She suggests people amass Social Security benefits as long as possible and not retire.

“If you delay Social Security benefits to age 70 instead of grabbing them at 62, your monthly benefit is 76 percent higher,” she said. “So, it can easily pay to keep working.”

It also apparently keeps you young. Eugene Warren, the 90-year-old co-founder of Buchbinder & Warren, a real estate management company in New York, goes to his office every day around 10 a.m. — three days a week, he works out with a trainer first — and stays until 5. He is very much involved in the day-to-day negotiations and sits in on every meeting.

As for Leno, he told Kroft he didn’t know what he would do after his farewell monologue. But if the past is any indication, he won’t be idle long: Last year, he performed more than 100 times on top of his television hosting responsibilities. His final “Tonight Show” airs on Thursday. The next day, he has a gig in Florida.

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