Portraits: The Changing Face of Retirement

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis
c.2007 Newhouse News Service

A generation ago, you'd retire from your job of 30 years, collect a gold watch, and start cashing pension checks.

No more is retirement a uniform picture.

"The concept of retirement is changing," said Tom Orecchio, a financial planner in Old Tappan, N.J., and chair of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors. "It truly is a long-term transition as opposed to an abrupt change."

Many people are working past 65, often in part-time or consulting roles, while others are getting out of the labor force as early as they can.

"Some people can't wait to retire. Some people it scares them to death," said Bernie Kiely, a Morristown, N.J., financial planner.

Here are some portraits of retirement in America:

"Our generation is a totally different generation," said Carol Spiegelman, 62. "Our parents all retired and got wonderful pensions and they had double-digit earnings on whatever investments they had."

About seven years ago, Spiegelman started working part-time as an account coordinator for a jewelry company in Manhattan. She and her dentist husband don't want to retire.

"You save as much money as you can but you are afraid that you'll outlive your money," she said. "The target for me would be $3 million to $5 million. We could never hit our target."

Spiegelman speaks frequently to her broker and stays on top of her investments. She and her husband have long-term care insurance, but aren't sure it's worth the costly premium.

"As long as we stay healthy we can continue to live this good life," she said.

The first day of his retirement, George Davenport walked about a mile and a half to a coffee shop from his Manlius, N.Y., home. That evolved into a "friendship group" of eight that meets regularly.

"At 65 or 66, I had just sort of had it. I'd been working for a car dealership for the better part of six days a week," Davenport said. "I was making quite a bit of money, but I hit a wall."

His wife plans to work for another five or six years, so Davenport, 68, keeps busy with golf, ski patrol and the volunteer fire department. He is drawing from Social Security and a retirement fund from his career at the YMCA, which a financial adviser manages. He relies on Medicare with his wife's work health insurance as a supplement.

He bought a small annuity but decided against long-term care insurance.

"To get comprehensive coverage it's quite expensive," Davenport said. "There's a waiting period to get in and there's a maximum to fulfill and there's a lag."

Robert and Becky Sims retired early so they could be active and engaged in their grandchildren's lives. In August, Robert, 60, retired from a Smurfit-Stone paper mill, sold the house and bought a motor home, and the couple moved to Zephir Hills, Fla., from Scottsboro, Ala.

"The next biggest event on our calendar, after retirement, is going home to be with the Lord," said Sims. "We need to make every minute count, not only in our relationship, but with our families and our grandkids."

With no house to maintain, they stick to a monthly budget of $3,700. Sims has a small pension and intends to sign up for Social Security as soon as he's eligible.

"Our lifestyle is not one that requires a great deal of money," he said. "We told each one of the grandkids, `When you get to be 12 years old, wherever you want to go in the RV, we'll take you there.' "

The one hitch so far: medical insurance. They had intended to purchase coverage after COBRA runs out in February 2009, but Becky Sims was turned down because of a minor skin disorder.

"They're almost like she's on her death bed because she has psoriasis," Robert Sims said. "It may be that we have to do some little job to get back on a group insurance policy."

Working with T. Rowe Price, the couple put $150,000 in a money market fund to cover living expenses until Social Security kicks in, plus a $25,000 emergency fund. The rest of their $1 million nest egg will remain in the stock and bond markets so it can grow and last for their lifetime.

"I'm prepared for some decreases in the market," Sims said. "You've got to be disciplined and not panic."

Medical problems forced Elizabeth Cavette of Flint, Mich., into retirement in 1999 at age 53. Forty percent of retirees left the workforce earlier than they wanted, nearly half because of health, according to a McKinsey & Co. report.

"I worked all my life, from a teenager babysitting, doing something and having my own money and feeling a part of society," Cavette said. "It was difficult to adjust to not getting up and going to the job."

She lives comfortably on the money she saved in her retirement fund from 31 years as an Ameritech service representative, although she's withdrawing more money than her broker advises.

"He's been trying to get me to take less money for a longer life, but I don't want to do that," Cavette said. "By the same token, I want to have a good roof over my head and feel secure."

She'd like to relocate to a senior community with more security and neighbors with a similar lifestyle. At her last doctor's visit she was surprised to find a $100 balance on her account, since Medicare or her company-paid retiree health insurance usually covered virtually all the cost.

"These insurances are so difficult to understand, you almost have to have a law degree," Cavette said. "You get older and you're in so much pain, your mind isn't as sharp."

Bonnie Dick, a 69-year-old employment consultant with CGI in Cleveland, would miss "having a finger in the pie" if she stopped working.

"I'm not planning on retiring, as long as I'm healthy," Dick said. "All these people in their 80s and 90s working, I'm aspiring to that."

About four years ago, she scaled back to half time, so she could volunteer in the community while continuing to earn income.

After Dick and her husband moved from Grand Rapids to Cleveland, they kept minimal contact with their Michigan broker. But when their retirement fund lost money in 2001, they switched to a Cleveland-based broker and have been diligent about understanding their investments.

Each has a long-term care policy, which is costly but gives peace of mind that a health crisis wouldn't drain their retirement fund, Dick said.

"People are living longer and health care is so expensive," she said. "We don't have the million dollars that we should have saved."

This article was originally published on Wednesday, November 7, 2007, by Newhouse News Service.