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Our Waning Days in the Workforce: The Expectations and Reality Behind Retirement

Employee Benefits

America is getting older. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the nation’s median age is continually rising, and the number of Americans older than 65 will more than double by 2060. While this trend provokes many important considerations for the country as a whole – including medical, economic, and cultural concerns – many of us are more focused on a personal question related to our aging: How will I retire?

Recent data suggests that most of America’s families have saved troublingly little for their golden years. The median retirement savings for families is less than $5,000, and 60 percent of families have no savings in plans like a 401(k) or IRA, according to a 2016 government report. To make matters worse, current Social Security funding will be exhausted by 2029, a scary prospect for those who hope for federal help once they leave the workforce.

In response to these impending retirement headwinds, we asked over 1,000 Americans about their hopes, dreams, and fears for their own retirement. Their responses revealed a mix of optimism and anxiety about what their post-work years would entail, including compelling differences among demographic groups. Read on to learn about the state of retirement sentiment across America.

Envisioning the End of Work

retirement sentiments

Despite potential complications that lie ahead, a large portion of respondents felt positive about the prospect of retiring: Nearly 47 percent reported happy feelings when thinking of this stage in their lives. However, almost 27 percent felt fear about the prospect of aging out of the workforce, while 11 percent expressed sadness when considering what retirement might entail. Interestingly, women were more likely to feel fear and less likely to feel happiness when envisioning retirement, perhaps a reflection of recent research suggesting women typically have less savings than men.

Differences in retirement sentiment emerged among the generations as well, with Gen Xers expressing the most happiness when imagining the end of their working lives. This generation also reported the most fear about retiring, however, suggesting strong feelings on both sides of the spectrum from middle-aged respondents. Interestingly, baby boomers were more fearful than millennials and Gen Zers when they pondered their retirement. Perhaps this is because they’re anxious about how long their savings will last. One recent survey found fewer than 1 in 4 baby boomers were confident they wouldn’t run out of money once they stopped working.

Forecasting Feelings

retirement satisfaction levels

When we asked survey respondents to predict how they might feel once retired, women once again expressed a more negative view than men, projecting lower levels of emotional and financial satisfaction in their later years. However, both genders anticipated only middling levels of satisfaction on average, reflecting tempered expectations for what their twilight years will be like.

In recent discussions of America’s retirement woes, much attention has been paid to income inequality: While the vast majority of workers face uncertainty, the wealthiest among them have less to fear. Though our data does indicate a general correlation between higher incomes and respondents’ expected retirement satisfaction, some interesting exceptions emerged as well. Those who made between $100,000 and $119,000, for instance, actually anticipated less emotional satisfaction in retirement than respondents with lower incomes.

Reconsidering When We Retire

ideal retirement ages

While the current age to receive full Social Security benefits is 66 (and will rise to 67 for those born after 1960), most respondents said they’d like to leave work sooner. The most common ideal retirement age for both men and women was 61 to 65, though more than a quarter of both genders said they’d prefer to stop working between 56 and 60. Men were more enthusiastic about retirement at 60 or before, an interesting contrast with recent data suggesting women are more likely to take early retirement benefits.

Only a tiny percentage of respondents said they’d ideally like to work past age 70. But perhaps participants are making peace with the realization that their reality will require exactly that, especially among younger generations. Indeed, one recent survey found that over 80 percent of millennials planned to work in retirement – a situation some might view as no retirement at all.

Facing a Retirement Reality

anticipated retirement ages

A slim majority of those surveyed said they would not retire exactly at 66, the current age to receive full Social Security benefits. Among that cohort, however, the majority of each gender predicted retiring sooner, with men particularly eager to leave work. Still, more than a third of those who did not plan to retire at 66 set their sights on a later date, perhaps because the government incentivizes delaying a few years. For each year workers wait past eligibility, their eventual payout increases by roughly 8 percent.

Interestingly, those with a doctorate were most likely to anticipate working past age 66. Perhaps this trend owes something to the tenure system at academic institutions, where these respondents are qualified to work, or their degree may simply imply a love of the subject in which they specialize. Whatever the case may be, aging among college professors is such a pronounced trend that some schools have resorted to buyouts to encourage older teachers to leave their posts.

Working Now to Retire Later

retirement planning

Once again, we observed differences in retirement sentiment between genders, with male respondents expressing control of their retirement planning at significantly higher rates. However, when we turn to distinctions among professions, an interesting pattern emerges. Workers in industries that have traditionally entailed union pensions are particularly confident in their retirement planning. Government workers, for instance, are more than five times as likely than private-sector employees to belong to a union, which typically entails pension provision for members. Construction, our third-ranked industry concerning feeling in control of retirement, also boasts high rates of unionization.

Regarding which savings plans our respondents were utilizing currently, pensions ranked well behind more common options, such as Social Security or defined contribution plans, such as 401(k)s. While it may seem surprising that so few respondents are leveraging employer-sponsored plans, they may be less widely offered than many of us assume. Recent research finds merely 14 percent of employers offered a defined contribution plan to their workers.

What They’ll Do (When They Can)

retirement days spent

Regardless of when they anticipated retiring, our respondents had big plans for their post-work years. More than 7 in 10 expressed plans to pick up a new hobby, while roughly two-thirds predicted they’d exercise more once they retired. Perhaps because the life expectancies of older Americans have steadily increased in recent decades, even more ambitious goals were also popular. More than half of respondents planned to travel or learn a new subject in retirement.

Still, more sobering plans also emerged in our data: Over 45 percent of respondents said they planned to work part time. Going further, more than 1 in 10 anticipated not retiring at all. While these projections may not be rosy, they do reflect reality for some. Older Americans are staying in the workforce more than ever before.

Reaching for Retirement

While our results reveal great uncertainty about the possibility of a comfortable retirement for many Americans, the dream of relaxing in our later years can still come true. Indeed, with smart financial decisions tailored to their own lifestyles, hundreds of thousands of Americans are choosing to leave the workforce on their own terms every year. To achieve this goal in time, workers need clarity about their needs and resources and to make the most of their earnings at any stage of their careers.

As more professionals seek to secure their retirement planning, employers must offer competitive benefits to attract top talent. That’s where Paychex can help transform your business, with HR solutions that are tailored for your business delivered through one integrated HR technology and service platform. Whether you need help with hiring, payroll, records administration, or managing employee benefits, let our team help expand your HR capabilities.


We surveyed more than 1,000 Americans to ascertain their expectations about their future retirement. We asked them questions about their sentiment toward the current retirement age, how they would alter it, and the ways they were planning for retirement. Using information they reported about their age and gender, we were able to determine the demographic comparisons we presented in this report.

This website contains articles posted for informational and educational value. Paychex is not responsible for information contained within any of these materials. Any opinions expressed within materials are not necessarily the opinion of, or supported by, Paychex. The information in these materials should not be considered legal or accounting advice, and it should not substitute for legal, accounting, and other professional advice where the facts and circumstances warrant.
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