This is the first in an occasional series of stories examining issues facing America's 78 million baby boomers, a generation that has long been an engine of change.
The recession is reshuffling retirement plans for baby boomers -- a demographic tsunami, accustomed to setting the agenda, that finds itself scrambling as the oldest boomers turn 64.
Depleted savings, sagging home values and high unemployment that lingers like a stubborn backache are forcing a generation that wanted to change the world to confront the fact that the world -- or at least the struggling economy -- may change them.
``Honestly, I'll have to work until they dig the hole,'' says Mike Howard, 49, a Davie auto mechanic who had planned to semi-retire at 60 but watched stock-market losses and a family crisis wipe out half of his savings.
``We were sitting on top of the world,'' says Howard, who owns A&S Auto Services with his wife, Paula. ``Now I'm getting customers who are losing their jobs and asking me to give them a break on their car service. It's hit everybody.''
In the past five years, boomers ages 46 to 54 have seen their average net worth drop 45 percent, from $172,400 to $94,200, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, and those 55 to 64 have seen their worth cut nearly in half, from $315,400 to $159,800. With their working days numbered, many realize they can't recoup.
``This has been a jolt to the psyche,'' says Sandra Timmerman, director of MetLife's Mature Market Institute. ``Boomers are realizing . . . that it's time to get real about the new reality.''
And whether that means delaying retirement, learning new skills or changing careers altogether, the staying-alive strategies of boomers -- the largest segment of the American workforce at 38 percent -- leave younger workers wondering when they'll get to move up the ladder.
More than 70 percent of workers 60 or older surveyed by Careerbuilder.com earlier this year said they were putting off retirement -- half of them to hang on to health benefits.
Sergia Dominguez, 53, of Miami Gardens, a personnel-services interviewer for Miami-Dade County, did the math last month and concluded that she can't afford to retire as planned at 62: Her savings are insufficient to supplement her pension, and insuring herself until she qualifies for Medicare at 65 seems out of the question.
``You have to sacrifice a little to get where you're going,'' says Dominguez, who is spending less on travel and restaurant meals, saving more and planning to work until 65. ``I want to have a better future, and this is what it takes.''
Having a realistic plan -- and a pension -- puts Dominguez ahead of the game: Only 53 percent of workers 55 and older have even tried to calculate how much they need for retirement, according to a 2010 survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, and 29 percent report less than $10,000 in savings and investments. It's little wonder that just 13 percent said they were confident they had enough to live comfortably in retirement.
``This recession has highlighted the fact that the promise of retiring at 65 and living the life of leisure has started to erode,'' says Deborah Russell, director of workplace aging at AARP.
A STRUGGLE TO WORK
Yet continuing to work -- at least full-time in a job of their choosing -- is an option more than four million aging boomers may have lost in the recession. The unemployment rate among 60- to 64-year-olds increased 2 ½-fold between February 2006 and February 2010, from 2.9 percent to 7.4 percent. While that's less than the 9.7 percent overall unemployment rate, it represents a particularly stubborn joblessness: Workers 55 and older are remaining unemployed for an average of 36 weeks compared with 29 weeks for all workers.