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You’ve probably heard the same thing in recent years that I have from beleaguered workers in their 50s and 60s: “If I can just make it to 65, I’ll be OK.”

For more than half a century, age 65 has been the magical retirement age for many American workers. It’s a watershed in our culture.

Yet, you might want to rethink that. A new study by the Employee Benefit Research Institute in Washington, D.C., forecast that today’s Baby Boomers and Gen Xers might have to work well into their 70s or early 80s to afford retirement.

“Our search finds that many people may have to delay retirement far beyond age 65 to increase the probability that they have enough money to cover their retirement expenses at a comfortable level,” says EBRI Research Director Jack VanDerbei.

“What really makes a positive difference, we found, is if people who continue to work after 65 also contribute to a defined contribution retirement plan.”

The value of 401(k) defined contribution retirement plans is that older workers can set aside more money for their retirement years as they age. That’s, of course, contingent upon them having continuous employment.

According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers over age of 55 in 1988 accounted for 12.4 percent of the American workforce. That percentage remained the same in 1998, but in 2008 it had swelled to 18.1 percent of the workforce and the bureau’s projections expect it to climb to 23.3 percent by 2018.

But that federal report fails to take into account the current economic climate, where unemployment has risen dramatically since 2008. Because of that, even more workers are likely to have to work later in life because of time lost to unemployment in recent years.

Of course, the people who face the steepest challenge are those on the low-end of the wage scale. EBRI estimates that workers making less than $11,700 a year would need to continue working to the age of 84 to have a 50 percent chance of affording a basic retirement.

Workers earning up to $31,200 would have to work until age 76 to have a 50 percent change of handling retirement costs. For workers earning up to $72,500, the key work age would be 72.

Only workers now earning more than $72,500 a year would have a chance of retiring comfortably at age 65, according to the EBRI study.

Since the two most unpredictable major expenses of retirement are inflation and the cost of uninsured medical needs, EBRI says workers who save through 401(k) plans have a better chance of securing a healthy financial future in retirement. And, the longer they work and save, the better their chances.

A lot of this is difficult to swallow for today’s older workers.

About one-third of the 2.1 million unemployed adults in California today have been without work for more than a year. With a state unemployment rate still running at a high 11.7 percent, any older workers caught without jobs will pay for it by working longer in their lives just to earn enough to have a comfortable retirement.

For everyone except a fortunate few, age 65 is just another number now.

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