Your retirement won’t look much like your grandparents’, and not because of structural changes in the economy, exactly, but because we want a different sort of retirement, according to a new poll from T. Rowe Price and Harris Interactive. The poll found that nearly 70 percent of young investors (defined broadly as between 21 and 50 years of age) plan on working during their retirement — in other words, they don’t plan on retiring, they plan on “retiring.” The bright side to this is that three-quarters of us plan on doing so “to stay active and involved,” while just 23 percent will do so because “they will not have saved enough money,” according to a press release. Let’s hope that’s the case.

Robert Banh/flickr source

This is good news for a generation that ought not count on Social Security being around anymore, but might be bad news otherwise.

Changing nature of work

Along with the death of organized labor and employer-sponsored pensions, we’ve done away with jobs that really require these hard-fought battles for rights between labor and capital. You won’t make friends saying that at the Occupy Wall Street General Assembly, but it’s hard to compare the danger and exploitation that went hand-in-hand with hard manual labor with the alienation, anomie and weight gain that are part and parcel of the information economy my generation was born into. By age 65, we might be pasty, doughy and world-weary from a lifetime of staring at a computer screen, but we won’t be too physically exhausted or too feeble operate the machinery. So the idea of working until we’re 80 is somewhat more realistic than it had been in the past. People who work in manufacturing will still likely want to retire.

Regulatory changes

T. Rowe Price’s survey only asked these retirement questions to people with retirement accounts, and focused on IRAs. IRAs and 401(k)s currently have special tax exemptions, which provides strong incentives for Americans to put some money away for their retirement. But isn’t it likely that these tax exemptions will go the way of Social Security (when it finally gets sunk by Baby Boomers), when our great nation finally collapses under the weight of low taxation rates and expensive wars of choice? Washington might eventually come to see these deductions as no different from federal spending for the precise reason that, well, they aren’t all that different. So long as the philosophy that a smaller federal government is better for the nation dominates our political debate, the less likely it becomes that private retirement savings accounts will remain as attractive as they had been, even if they are a essentially a privatized alternative to Social Security.

Life expectancy

The study found that the median projected retirement — or “retirement” — age is 62, and that we expect that we’ll live 22 years from that point. So we’ve clearly priced in a timely death at 84. That’s nice. But with advances in technology and medicine it’s not impossible that our life expectancy might get a bit higher than 85. And leaps forward in technology that might prolong our lives might simultaneously make participation in the workforce alienating, even for those of us who grew up with iPods and cellphones. We’d hate to speculate on what this might look like at the risk of sounding very silly, but it seems like that might be something that could maybe be true. What we’re saying is that by assuming we will a) die at a certain age and b) always be able to work a little bit, we run the risk of really letting ourselves down, come “retirement.”

And this expectation that our services or wisdom might still be worthwhile — even on a part-time basis — in the year 2060 is wishful thinking if not downright delusional. Remember the scene in About Schmidt when Jack Nicholson’s character stops by the office to offer his advice, he’s so bored by retirement, only to be ushered out by the young man who has replaced him, and sees no use for his dated advice? Think that, but alienatingly futuristic. Like, maybe your replacement is a robot.

That so many of us think working life will be part of our post-working life when it very well may not, could mean that we won’t save properly for our retirement. Just because we don’t plan on buying a house in Florida and taking up golf, it doesn’t mean we don’t desperately need to save. The fact safety nets like Social Security likely won’t be there for us makes this ever more important.

Our retirement certainly won’t be like our grandparents’ but not necessarily because it’s going to be better. If you can’t work, the Bingo winnings aren’t gonna cut it.

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