Retirement Plans Shrink as Economy Falters

More and more older workers are opting to stay on the job rather than retire. For some, it's a matter of choice. For others, the uncertain housing market and shrinking returns on retirement funds make retiring a difficult prospect.

This year is supposed to be the beginning of a "silver tsunami." That's because the first wave of the 78 million people in the baby boomer generation can start collecting Social Security benefits.

Roy Del Rio, 62, says he's working fewer hours as a project manager consultant. But he isn't ready to retire.

"I always say, when I retire I'll die — that's about when I'll retire," Del Rio says. "And [with] the economy now, you think you have enough, but you don't. You go through it, and the way gas prices and everything else are going...." His voice trails off.

"And plus, it's just too boring for me to just sit around, anyways."

Del Rio lives in Munster, Ind. The town's tidy lawns, neat one-story, mostly brick homes and immaculate streets — with names such as Robin, Tulip and Bluebird — belie the long-troubled economy of northwest Indiana.

"I feel people are kind of downsizing without losing everything," Del Rio says. "You've got to realize, these communities around this area were built by steel mills — and all the steel mills downsized and a lot of them closed up."

And a lot of houses in the area are for sale. The economic uncertainty — here and elsewhere — makes saving for retirement less of a priority. It's more about making ends meet.

Craig Copeland, senior research associate with the Employee Benefit Research Institute in Washington, D.C., says the organization's annual survey shows a big drop in the number of people who believe they will be able to retire comfortably.

"People are growing more concerned about outliving their resources," Copeland says. "They're concerned about being able to afford health care in retirement.

"If you look at what is accumulated, you see that about 50 percent of workers have less than $50,000 in savings," Copeland says. "And that certainly won't get you far in retirement, when most people retire somewhere between 62 and 65, and they have 20 years of life expectancy."

Alice Jones is the office manager for Harbor Marketing, a small operation in Gary, Ind., that buys and distributes secondary coils used in transformers. When she's at work, she keeps the radio on for company. At age 56, Jones has a few years before she reaches retirement age — not that it matters.

"I see myself working probably until I just can't work anymore," Jones says.

For more than 20 years, Jones worked as an aluminum buyer for a company that has since gone bankrupt. When she lost her job, she tapped into her 401(k) retirement fund.

Not long ago, people could count on their home equity in tough financial times. They could sell their houses and live off the proceeds in downsized homes in the Sunbelt.

Jones has learned that's a tougher prospect now. When she put her house on the market, "it was almost a year before I could sell. ... I made $6,000 off of it," she says. "I should have made a whole lot more money than that. It was a very scary, scary thing."

Jones says while she may think about not working someday, she doesn't see how that's a possibility in today's economy.

But for some, delaying retirement is more of a choice. Thomas Barnes, 71, is Gary's former mayor and an attorney, but his main job is running the family business, Barnes Washer Repair Parts Service and Laundromat.

Standing in the store, Barnes watches as people load clothes from washing machines into dryers. He took over the shop when his brother decided to retire.

"Working does help to take the edge off of some of the things," Barnes says. "I've got grandkids, and you've got to kind of help them out. But in terms of being something as a need, no."

But Barnes says the prospect of living longer — with limited retirement benefits and increasing health costs — has kept many of his peers on the payroll.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly one in four Americans ages 65 through 74 remain in the labor force — and their numbers continue to grow.

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