Many Americans retire far earlier than expected — and not by choice

American workers by and large believe they’ll retire at 65, the nation’s traditional retirement age. But real life often gets in the way of those plans, with new research finding that the majority actually step back from work far earlier. And for many, it’s not by choice. 

The median retirement age for Americans is actually 62, meaning that the typical worker is stepping back from their career three years earlier than expected, according to new research from the Employee Benefit Research Institute, a nonprofit focused on employee benefit programs. 

The findings underscore the gap between retirement goals and reality. One increasingly popular idea, often promoted by lawmakers and business leaders, is that Americans should work longer so they can better afford their golden years. Because millions of workers are woefully lacking in retirement savings, working longer is seen as a way to solve their funding gap. In reality, however, many U.S. seniors are forced into retirement before they’re ready.  

But even when people want to work longer, they’re not always able to, the new research found.

“It’s hard to make that case that everyone should work longer and that will solve the problems we have in retirement,” Craig Copeland, director of wealth benefits research at EBRI, told CBS MoneyWatch. “That clearly won’t solve all the problems because many people just can’t do it.”

Seven in 10 retirees stopped working before they turned 65, the report found. Overall, about half said they stopped working before they had expected, with the majority blaming reasons out of their control. For instance, about one-third cited a health issue or disability for their earlier-than-expected retirement.

Only about 2 in 5 said they stopped working earlier than expected because they could afford to do so, the research found.

Within that gap between expectations and reality lies the potential for some troubling outcomes. For instance, workers who plan to retire at 65, but are forced to stop working years earlier, might not have enough saved.

Already, many older Americans lack any retirement savings, with a new AARP study finding that 1 in 5 people over 50 have nothing saved for their old age. 

Needed: $1.5 million

The new EBRI study, which polled 1,255 workers and 1,266 retirees in January, found that only about half of workers have calculated how much money they’ll need in retirement. Of those who examined their financial retirement goals, about one-third believe they’ll require at least $1.5 million, EBRI found. 

That jibes with other research that found the typical worker believes they’ll need $1.46 million to retire comfortably.  But in reality, most Americans have far less, with EBRI noting that about one-third of workers currently have less than $50,000 in savings and investments. 

Americans may be picking big numbers because of the rule of thumb that you should have about 10 times your salary saved for retirement, Copeland noted. 

“So if you are making $100,000 or $150,000, $1.5 million is a simple calculation to get you there,” he noted. “They are realistic in what they need, but I’m not sure they are realistic in what they need to save to reach that number, and that’s the issue.”

At the same time, most workers expect Social Security will be a source of income in retirement, EBRI found, even as the benefits program is set to face a funding shortfall in less than a decade. If Social Security isn’t shored up by 2033, retirees could face an across-the-board benefits cut of more than 20%, a worrying issue for workers without much saved for retirement.

Even so, current retirees overall are optimistic about their lives, with EBRI finding that two-thirds said they are living the retirement life they envisioned. 

“It’s pretty positive overall,” Copeland said. “But getting there can be a stressful situation.”

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