Is Your Attitude Toward Work Killing Your Retirement Dreams?

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Do you have a generally positive or negative impression of the word “retirement”?

I ask because it dovetails nicely with a series of questions (inspired by Rick Kahler) that I use to begin most speaking engagements. These questions are designed to incite self-awareness, offering us clues about how our life experiences have shaped the (often unarticulated but powerful) beliefs that unavoidably influence the decisions we make with and for money.

Regardless of an audience’s homogeneity, their responses are consistently inconsistent. I have, however, seen some generational persistency on the topic of retirement. For example, on average, baby boomers have a generally positive view of retirement—no doubt shaped in part by the incessant financial services commercials that promise a utopian post-career existence with beaches, sailboats, golf and an unlimited supply of vintage Pinot Noir.

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On the other hand, the finance and accounting students that I had the privilege of teaching at Towson University—almost all members of the Millennial generation—had a generally negative view of the notion of retirement. This is for two prominent reasons:

A. They pictured hot, humid, early buffet dinners in rural Florida.

B. They don’t think that the American dream of retirement is available to them.

Interestingly, according to a new study from AARP’s Life Reimagined focusing on full-time workers 35 and older, this generational pessimism is now creeping up the age ladder to Generation X and baby boomers as well. AARP reports that “while 87% of those surveyed who are working full time say they want to retire someday with nearly 70% of those hoping to retire by 65, just over half don’t expect to retire by 65 or at any age.”

Sheesh. Can I get a ho-hum?

It deserves mentioning that the working set 35 and older does appear to accurately assess their retirement readiness. Corroborating common perception with reality, the National Retirement Risk Index (NRRI) estimates that “52% of households are ‘at risk’ of not having enough to maintain their living standards in retirement.”

Old news, right? But what interests me a great deal more is the following finding in the AARP’s survey: “Although this group acknowledges that they will be working longer, fewer than one in five people across the Gen Xer and Boomer demographics say the thing that motivates them to get up in the morning is going to a job that fulfills them.”

So, more than 80% of the workforce over the age of 34 doesn’t like their work? No wonder they’re so stricken by this distressing conundrum: They desperately want to retire but can’t stand the only vehicle likely to help them reach their destination.

We must acknowledge that our views of retirement and work are inextricably intertwined.

It’s a vicious circle: If you don’t like your work, you’re likely to overvalue retirement. But if you undervalue you’re work, it’s logical to assume your performance will be less than optimal and, therefore, that your wages—your retirement savings engine—will be suppressed.

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But there’s a virtuous circle to counter: If you love your work, it’s likely that you undervalue retirement. But ironically, because you love your work, it’s logical to assume your lifetime performance is improved and your lifetime earnings (and savings potential) are increased, better preparing you for retirement.

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Yeah, but it’s unrealistic to think that everyone can have their dream job! This is absolutely true, but that doesn’t mean we can’t purposefully and intentionally move toward it, shifting in the direction of a more virtuous cycle.

Or, in the words of career guru Jon Acuff, “Please don’t tell me you’re too busy to look for a new job and then show me your perfectly detailed fantasy football team.… Please don’t tell me you’re too busy to update your resume and then update your social media accounts incessantly.”

And most fascinatingly, the AARP study seems to help point us in the direction of a more fulfilling career: “If money was not a factor, most would volunteer or donate to a cause and travel the world.… The most popular types of ideal jobs for those who would switch are doing something that helps or teaches others and doing something creative or artistic.”

You probably don’t have the same talents that will likely launch 12-year-old Grace VanderWaal into a lifetime of fulfilling work (I still can’t watch this without choking up). But I’d be willing to bet that you could do something to move one step, small or large, in the direction of more fulfilling work, which will likely help you make and save more money over your lifetime while reducing any desperation you might feel about the need to retire.

To help you make the most of this article, please consider these two questions:

1. Is yours a vicious or virtuous work/retirement circle?

2. What is the next action you’ll take to move in the right direction?

This commentary originally appeared July 23 on Forbes.com

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