Americans' trademark optimism is intact, at least in regard to retirement, despite the economic turbulence that is reportedly forcing many people to work longer and make do with less. In fact, many retirees found only one downside: They wish they could have done it sooner. That's according to a new survey from The Hartford and MIT AgeLab.

The study, conducted by GfK Roper for The Hartford and the MIT AgeLab, surveyed people who are within 10 years of retiring versus those who have retired within the last 10 years, and attempted to answer the question, “Does the reality of retirement match expectations?” 

The October 2011 Age of Opportunity study, which measured the opinions and concerns of Americans both in and approaching retirement, found that most retirees are pleased with their life, and both pre-retirees and retirees have a positive attitude about retirement overall.

Retirees are more likely to say “I am happier now that I am retired” (77%) than those who have yet to retire are to say “I will be happier after I retire” (64%).

“Today’s retiree is redefining what retirement is — and isn’t — and the study suggests that people near retirement, or recently retired, have optimistic yet realistic expectations,” says Joseph Coughlin, Ph.D., founder and Director of the MIT AgeLab. “These findings indicate that companies, organizations and families must redefine how they engage this next-generation retiree to help them envision and plan for the financial demands of longevity as well as all the big and little things that make up a happy, healthy and longer life.”

Other findings included that other than wishing they could retire earlier (35% of pre-retirees), or could have retired earlier (42% of retirees), many recent and soon-to-be retirees see few negatives about retiring. Twenty-six percent of those nearing retirement said they feel “hopeful” about retirement, while 27% of those who have recently retired say they feel “peaceful.”

Among retirees, the more affluent are twice as likely as others to cite giving up a fulfilling career as a negative to retirement. When it comes to planning, both pre-retirees and retirees said a milestone birthday (19% of pre-retirees, 14% of retirees) or the realization that they are within 10 years of retiring (15% of pre-retirees, 11% of retirees) were the two most common triggers for serious financial planning. It also seems that early planning plays off: More affluent retirees – those with $250,000 or more of investable assets – are twice as likely to say they began serious financial planning when they got their first job.

“We really wanted to take a holistic look at retirement,” says David Levenson, president of The Hartford’s Wealth Management Division. “The study found that despite economic pressures, most people are positive, confident and very happy to be retired, although most wished they had been better prepared financially.”

From Oct. 3-16, 2011, GfK Roper conducted a total of 1,964 telephone interviews with adults 45 years and older using RDD (random digit dialing). To qualify, respondents must have retired in the past 2-10 years (“retiree”) or plan to retire in the next 2-10 years (“pre-retiree”).  These groups were further divided based on their household’s total investable assets, with quotas for under $250,000 and $250,000 or higher.

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