Retire? Never!

When I was in my 30s, a friend asked whether I was saving money for retirement. I laughed. As a single mother with two small children, I could barely keep my head above water financially. No, I told her, I had nothing saved. She asked how I’d manage when I stopped working. I had no brain cells to spare to think about my old age, which seemed unreal to me anyway.

“I’ll just have to go on working until I drop,” I told her. It wasn’t exactly what you’d call a retirement plan.

Today, more and more Americans intend to stay in the labor force past the traditional retirement age of 65, and many believe, as I did, that they can continue to work to the end of their lives. In 2011, AP pollsters asked boomers who were employed when they planned to retire, and 25 percent said “never.”

That’s not surprising at a time when many people’s savings have been decimated, but the problem with “never” is that it may not be practical. Almost half of all retirees leave the work force earlier than they planned to, according to a 2011 survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute.  Most blame poor health—their own or the illness of someone close to them. They’ve been sidelined by forces beyond their control.

When you’re planning for retirement, you need to build up both financial and physical reserves, Joseph F. Coughlin, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology AgeLab, wrote in an article for Big Think, an online forum for ideas. That’s even more important if you hope to retire late or possibly never: you need to save money and take care of your health—and hope for a bit of luck.

When I reached midlife, my finances began to improve. I’m in my 80s now and work out of my home office. Fortunately, I still have my health, but I can’t imagine commuting to a nine-to-five job—I just don’t have the energy.

Historians tell us that before Social Security, most people worked until they dropped, and after that they often turned to their children for support. Nobody I know wants to do that to their kids.

Probably the best advice right now is: work as long as possible but don’t count on dying with your boots still on. Scary though it may be, we all need to think ahead and consider a range of financial survival strategies for our later years.