Women planning retirement face challenges [Commentary]

The working population is heading toward retirement like lemmings to the edge of the cliff — about 10,000 Americans turn 65 every day.

And although that age is no longer the hard and fast stop date it was in the past, it is certainly a watershed moment. At 65, there is no denying the end of working life is approaching.

If we baby boomers have rewritten the books at every life stage, we will certainly add to that book in retirement. And women may get a chapter all their own.

The women who entered the workforce in such numbers in the late 1960s and 1970s are approaching retirement now, but their resumes don't look much like their male counterpart's, and it is likely to affect their retirement decisions.

First, they may have taken time off or dialed back while their children were young — or when their parents needed care — and now they have the time and the energy to dive back in. But that also means these women have smaller retirement savings and smaller Social Security benefits, which makes working longer more important to them. In addition, many women, especially those who worked part-time, might not have had access to company pension plans or 401(k)s.

The share of older women remaining in the workforce has increased over the past 20 years, much more quickly than it has for men. In 1992, 23 percent of women over 55 were working. In 2012, it had increased to 35 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

There are other reasons why women are reluctant to walk away from a paycheck. We are afraid we will outlive our spouses — and our money.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 50 percent of women 65 and older are on their own, either because they are divorced, widowed or never married. And we are particularly sensitive about becoming a burden on our children.

Sadly, most of us still find financial planning and decisions about when to take Social Security confusing — or at least anxiety producing. That makes retirement even scarier. Only 7 percent of women are "very confident" in their ability to fully retire and live comfortably, according to a Transamerica Center retirement study. And at least some of that uncertainty is a lack of confidence in our decisions.

Equally sad is the fact that working women often put family first and retirement savings dead last. We are more concerned about paying for the children's camps and college or our parents' care than we are about contributing to our retirement savings.

Boomer women are going to have to get tough quickly. We are going to have to find a way to say no to our children and ask questions of our financial advisers. We are going to have to put ourselves first and put ourselves out there, demanding the attention of the experts who, like a car salesman, always look at him first.

After all, we are probably going to outlive our spouses, if we have one, and we will be the ones making the decisions about the unprecedented wealth that will be passed on to the next generation when we exit.

But there is good news — our daughters look like they will be in good shape.

More women are going to college than men today, and they are earning higher degrees. Many of them will be the breadwinners in their families.

They didn't grow up thinking they would marry a man to take care of all of this, and they aren't easily intimidated by bosses, bankers or husbands.

If I could give some advice, it would be this: Don't quit your job; dial back, go part-time, but do whatever you have to do to stay even a little bit employed because it is much easier to ramp up than it is to re-enter the workforce.

And watch your spending. You are more likely to spend money on how you look and on how your house looks than he is. Put money in savings first.

Then perhaps you will not be as worried as your mothers are when it comes time to retire.

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at sreimer@baltsun.com and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com.

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