4 Surprising Things We Learned About Retirement

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Marcus is excited to share some findings from the 2021 Retirement Survey & Insights Report by our friends at Goldman Sachs Asset Management.

Most of us have some ideas about what we’d like our retirement to look like — when we’ll retire, what we’ll be spending our money on, whether we’ll live out of an RV or stake out a nice parcel of beach and never leave.

Our friends at Asset Management started wondering one day: Is the reality of retirement anything like our expectations? 

They decided the best way to find out would be to actually ask workers and people who are already retired about their hopes and concerns. What did people expect? What really happened? They talked to more than 1,200 people across generations, genders and industries.  

It turns out that expectations and reality often don’t match up. 

Now, that may not sound reassuring. But there is an upside. When you know what challenges or realities may lie ahead, you can plan better and fine-tune your retirement strategy to make your golden-years dreams come true. 

So what were the most surprising discoveries they made? 

1. People are retiring earlier than planned

Some workers are jumping into their second act sooner than they’d planned. In fact, more than half (51%) of current retirees said they’d retired earlier than planned. Only 3% retired later than expected. 

This matters because the amount of time you spend saving for retirement hugely affects how much you need to put away each month and/or how much you end up with to live on. If retirement comes earlier than expected, how will that affect your bottom line?

2. People are retiring for reasons they didn’t expect

You might be thinking that all this early retirement is great news. These people hit their savings milestone, quit their jobs and started enjoying themselves, right? That sounds wonderful!

But you may be surprised to learn why people are actually logging off early. Two of five workers surveyed thought that having enough funds would be the reason to retire early. The reality, however, is that only 8% of retirees quit working because they could afford it. The top driver of the decision to retire? Health. Nearly 25% retired for health reasons. Another 14% of retirees lost their jobs and decided not to go back to work for good. 

Other retirees report being tired of working, getting a retirement package offer from their employer or hitting their employer’s forced retirement age or Social Security age.

Remember the saying “Life is what happens while you’re making other plans?” There can be some truth to it.

3. Younger generations face more obstacles to saving

As you probably know, lots of things can get in the way of saving for retirement: family responsibilities, housing and education costs, and life’s unexpected twists. The survey found that most workers have had their retirement savings plans impacted by the following problems at one time or another: 

  • Credit card debt – 80%
  • Caring/financially supporting family members – 84%
  • Time out of the workforce for child or elder care – 75%
  • Financial hardships – 89%
  • High monthly expenses – 93%


The biggest surprise, however, is a major generation gap. While high numbers of younger workers are facing these obstacles today, far fewer retirees (9% - 21%) say these problems affected their retirement planning.  

Have times changed that much? Well, the problems aren’t new, but the types of retirement plans commonly offered by employers have changed. 

With the shift from pension plans to defined contribution plans, employees have to take on more of the responsibility of saving and investing for retirement. And, if you have to take time out of the workforce for any reason, such as caring for a family member, you lose the benefits of any type of employer-sponsored plan and consistent saving becomes even harder. This shift in retirement plan offerings could be why younger generations are reporting more financial challenges.  

Covid’s impact on retirement 

Speaking of life’s unexpected twists, the pandemic was a mixed bag for working Americans. 29% said it didn’t affect their finances and 39% said it didn’t change their retirement timing. Among those affected, some were hurt and some were helped: 

  • 25% took from emergency savings while 23% added to them
  • 16% withdrew some of their retirement savings vs. 19% who added to them
  • One out of three said Covid will set back their retirement by at least a year while 14% expect to retire at least a year earlier now. 

4. Money management isn’t the top retirement concern 

You’d think that retirees would be most worried about managing their money and not running out. But they actually worry more about other things. Health care is their top concern (44%). This makes sense because health care costs are a big part of retirement spending – nearly a third of retirees were more surprised by the impact of these expenses than any others. 

Two other concerns run a close second and third. A lack of specific plans to improve Social Security’s solvency has retirees worrying about a drop in their benefits (43%), while the threat of inflation has them anxious about rising living costs (42%). 

Takeaways for retirement planning

We’ve certainly given you a lot of numbers, but they lead to a single bottom line: Life doesn’t always go as planned. That’s why it’s so important to remember the basics when it comes to retirement planning.

Honestly, retirement planning is manageable. It doesn’t take extraordinary skills or opportunities. The retirement pros at Goldman Sachs Asset Management believe there are a few simple steps that can help get you through to retirement in good shape:

  1. Start saving and investing as soon as you can. The time you have until retirement affects how much you should put away monthly and how much that money can earn for you. Starting early maximizes your time, even if you end up leaving the workforce early for unexpected reasons. 
  2. If your employer offers a retirement plan, take advantage. You probably won’t even notice money that comes right out of your paycheck before you see it. Plus, your employer may match some of your contributions. 
  3. Health care is important. Be sure to include good health insurance in your retirement plans (think about “Medigap” policies that cover more expenses than Medicare alone) and put money aside for costs that won’t be covered by insurance. 
  4. Plan and save so you won’t need a part-time job after you retire, but think about the kind of job you might want. Would it be rewarding to mentor people in your old field or exciting to try something new? Would you enjoy a job that gives you chances to socialize or to learn or both? Having something productive to do, paid or unpaid, can make retirement feel more satisfying for many people. There’s even evidence it can keep you healthier.
  5. If life does upset your plans at any point, the important things to know are you’re not alone and don’t give up. Try to get back on track as soon as you can. 

If you’re thinking about (or rethinking) your second act, talk to your financial advisor about your retirement dreams. They can help you figure out how to include real life in your plans. 

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for individualized professional tax advice. Individuals should consult their own tax advisor for matters specific to their own taxes. This article was prepared by and approved by Marcus by Goldman Sachs, but does not reflect the institutional opinions of The Goldman Sachs Group, Inc., Goldman Sachs Bank USA, Goldman Sachs & Co. LLC or any of their affiliates, subsidiaries or divisions. Goldman Sachs Bank USA and Goldman Sachs & Co. LLC are not providing any financial, economic, legal, accounting, tax or other recommendations in this article. Information and opinions expressed in this article are as of the date of this material only and subject to change without notice. Information contained in this article does not constitute the provision of investment advice by Goldman Sachs Bank USA, Goldman Sachs & Co. LLC or any of their affiliates. Neither Goldman Sachs Bank USA, Goldman Sachs & Co. LLC nor any of their affiliates makes any representations or warranties, express or implied, as to the accuracy or completeness of the statements of any information contained in this document and any liability therefore is expressly disclaimed.