For older Americans surveyed by Allianz Life Insurance Co., death is not such a big deal. Not, that is, when it compares to the spectre of a dwindling bank account. In a poll of people between the ages of 44 and 75, 61% said that running out money was their biggest fear. The remaining 39% thought death was scarier.
With a couple of banking crises under our belts, we've become almost entirely focused on the monetary aspect of advanced age. The context is important. The poll of 3,257 people, released last month, found that a whopping 92% of respondents agreed that "the United States is facing a crisis in its retirement system," the AARP wrote about the report.
It's so well-known that the U.S. won't have enough to fund Social Security in the next several decades that most younger people are throwing up their hands in disgust and counting, instead, on their own ability to save, as well as family and community support. The younger cohort among the old folks, who may after all be farther from retirement than they'd like, have really nail-biting fears: 56% are concerned they won't be able to cover their basic living expenses once they reach retirement age.
A movement known as the "Radical Homemakers" argues that building a community safety net is so important, many of us would be better off quitting our jobs and focusing on creating a grassroots old-age support system -- building up assets of family, friendship and community ties instead of a 401(k). In addition, they advise that people build the skills to live on less -- the sorts of skills probably keenly honed in the parents of the 44- to 75-year olds that Allianz surveyed. After all, more than half of those surveyed said their net worth has tanked since the economic crisis began and many of them have already been forced to cut back.
So why is the financial crisis, and our greatly diminishing faith in financial institutions, such a big deal? Even in the golden age of lifetime employment and secure pension funds, we never placed so much of our hopes and dreams in corporations and the. Instead, we found our emotional security through religion or family or both. We might be wise to return to such comforts. While our banks may be "too big to fail," they surely do fail us, all the time; and our Social Security system's most commonly-used descriptor is "imploding." Little associations fail us too, but their impacts are more personal and don't require a deficit-doubling government bailout.
It's hard to face retirement in an age where even taxes seem uncertain and death is the only constant. It's assured, so why be afraid? Far more terrifying is the stuff leading up to it. Perhaps we would do better to spend more time focusing on our intangible assets; without a dollar-value market to go bust, they're a lot less stressful.
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