Four in 10 U.S. Workers Say Living Past 85 would be a Financial 'Hardship,' Wells Fargo Survey Finds

Originally Published by Wells Fargo.

With the prospect of longer life spans, 38 percent of U.S. workers age 21 and older say it would be a financial “hardship” to live past the age of 85, according to the 2018 Wells Fargo Retirement study, which examines the attitudes and savings of working adults and retirees. Most workers say they expect to live to age 85, 42 percent say they could live longer, and 10 percent say they could live to 95 or older. Now in its ninth year, the Wells Fargo Retirement study was conducted online by The Harris Poll on behalf of Wells Fargo.

Although a longer-than-expected life raises the possibility of financial struggle, retirement in and of itself represents a life event that most survey respondents look forward to, with 90 percent saying that retirement will be a “positive new chapter in life.”

“Americans strive for a good retirement and view it optimistically,” said Fredrik Axsater, head of Strategic Business Segments at Wells Fargo Asset Management. “People expect a retirement that could last 20 to 35 years, and our survey represents a call to action to help them prepare for this new stage in their lives, remove fear, and provide more certainty of their financial future. There is a strong likelihood that retirees will live longer than they expect.”

The power of a “planning mindset”

Wells Fargo uncovered four specific statements that, when affirmed by workers, correlate with a significantly better financial life, including lower levels of financial stress and better financial well-being. The attitudes and behaviors inherent to the statements contribute to what Wells Fargo calls a “planning mindset.” These are:

1. Setting a financial goal during the past six months.

2. Working toward a long-term goal.

3. Feeling good about planning financial matters over the next one to two years.

4. Preferring to save for retirement now rather than waiting until later.

*See appendix for questions

Workers with the planning mindset:

  • Are more likely to have a “thriving” financial life (64 percent versus 36 percent for those without a planning mindset) or a “thriving” life overall (79 percent versus 58 percent).
  • Are 42 percent less likely to have high levels of financial stress.
  • Have 3.1 times more retirement savings than someone without a planning mindset.
    • Working men with the planning mindset have saved more for retirement than those without a planning mindset ($150,000 versus $60,000).
    • Working women with the planning mindset also have saved more than those without a planning mindset ($75,000 versus $30,000).

Across all workers, 84 percent of those with a planning mindset say they regularly contribute to retirement savings versus 66 percent who do not have this mindset. And fewer people with the planning mindset 27 percent envision living to age 85 or longer as a financial hardship versus 43 percent who do not have this mindset.


A planning mindset cuts across household incomes but is more prevalent among higher earners:

  • 33 percent of workers with a planning mindset have household income of less than $75,000.
  • 66 percent of workers with a planning mindset have income that is $75,000 or greater.

“Regardless of income, establishing a financial plan and living a life focused on financial goals can deliver many benefits, including less stress and higher savings, which are the foundations for building a successful retirement,” said Joe Ready, head of Wells Fargo Institutional Retirement and Trust. “Maybe money can’t buy happiness, but planning early can provide more confidence about the future which is spanning across decades for many retirees.”

Unforeseen challenges on the road to retirement

Although 85 percent of respondents say retirement will be a “positive new chapter in life,” 40 percent say they are not confident they will have enough retirement income to cover their needs. Most expect to retire at 65, but 58 percent of retirees retired earlier than they expected.

Other concerns that workers note in the study include:

  • 70 percent are concerned about running out of money.
  • 69 percent don’t know what they would do if they ran out of money.
  • 64 percent of retirees took Social Security as soon as they could.

“Our findings highlight the unpredictability of life and retirement and that many workers are concerned about running out of money in their golden years,” said Axsater. “Together with employers, we can help improve the journey so employees can feel confident they will be able to retire, rely on a more predictable income in retirement, and enjoy the positive new chapter in life.”

Pension and 401(k) What’s the impact

401(k) and pension plans together enable people to save more for retirement than those without access to a pension plan or 401(k). Forty-six percent of retirees in the survey have access to a pension as compared to 33 percent of workers. The results of the survey show that people with access to a pension and a 401(k) save the most and feel most confident about retirement.




Access to
AND 401k

No Pension
No 401k

Combination household and personal amount saved for retirement including $0 (median)$65,000$60,000$150,000$10,000
Age (median)*53404744
Income (median)$77K$80K$93K$53K
Monthly savings ($)$500$500$1,000$100
Percentage with a planning mindset**34%38%41%26%
I have a detailed financial plan (strongly agree/agree)43%47%57%39%
In control / happy about my current financial life / financial life in retirement65%62%74%48%
Confident about living comfortably throughout my retirement years60%61%72%45%

* Average age of total workers is 44

**36% of workers have a planning mindset

Only 32 percent of workers with access to a pension and a 401(k) indicate that living to age 85 or beyond would be a financial hardship. However, for those without access to a 401(k) or a pension, this concern for hardship in the future rises to 45 percent of workers.

Users of a 401(k) do not see it as strictly a means for accumulating savings: 86 percent of workers agree that it would be “valuable” if their plan provided a statement on how much they could spend each month in retirement, based on their current and projected savings. Younger workers also would like to see their employer provide more help with their retirement choices: 73 percent of Millennial workers and 63 percent of Gen X workers say they would like more help from employers, compared to 50 percent of baby boomers.

“It is important for employers to recognize the role they play as they consider services to help people manage the bulk of their retirement nest egg not just to but through retirement,” said Ready. “As the sponsor for their retirement plan, the employer is increasingly seen as a trusted source of information for retirement planning among younger workers.”

Accumulated savings by generation

Savings continue to be a challenge for many investors. Following are the median retirement savings reported by men and women across generations:






Generation X


Baby boomer




(These figures represent median amounts saved, combining both individual and household savings reported, including those who report “0.”)

Across all workers in the survey, 68 percent have access to a 401(k) plan, which the study shows is an important retirement vehicle, with 92 percent saying they feel “more secure” about retirement because they have “contributed to” or “are contributing to” a 401(k).

Eighty-two percent of workers who have access to a 401(k) say they would not have saved as much for retirement if not for the 401(k), which breaks down to 80 percent of men and 85 percent of women savers.

Across all generations, 21 percent of those with household income of $75,000 to $100,000 are saving $1,000 a month or more for retirement.

“Saving for a retirement that is 20 to 30 years down the road is not easy. It always requires real-time trade-offs,” said Ready. “It’s good to see that people earning around the median household income in the U.S. today can put away as much as $1,000 a month. This is going to help them better prepare for retirement.”

Generation stress

Among working generations, Gen X workers defined roughly as those born between 1961 and 1981 and Millennials exhibit the highest levels of stress. In the midst of their peak earning years and with at least a decade left in their careers, 55 percent of Gen X workers describe themselves as “struggling” or “suffering” in their financial lives. Similarly, 60 percent of Millennials say they see their financial lives as “struggling” or “suffering,” highlighting the challenges younger workers face as they prepare for retirement. Not surprisingly, fewer than half 48 percent of Gen X workers say they are saving enough for retirement, as compared to 58 percent of baby boomers.

With respect to the younger generations, 39 percent of Gen X workers and just under half (46 percent) of Millennials say the 401(k) will be the primary financial source for paying expenses in retirement, as compared to 25 percent of baby boomers.

Pressures on Generation X

Pressured by the financial responsibilities of raising children and supporting aging parents, Gen X workers are nearing the critical pre-retirement phase. However, among Gen X workers, only 45 percent say they have a detailed financial plan the lowest rate of planning among all generations.

Twenty-four percent of Gen X workers say they have “unmanageable” debt, very close to the 26 percent of Millennials who report “unmanageable” debt. When asked to rank their financial priorities after paying off monthly expenses, Gen X respondents say that saving for retirement ranks highest, at 58 percent, followed by 54 percent who say it is important to pay off debt (credit cards, loans). For Gen X respondents, paying off debt as a priority outranks both Millennials and baby boomers by at least 9 percentage points.

The way Gen X workers perceive their financial life is divided along gender lines: 50 percent of Gen X males describe their financial life as “thriving” versus 39 percent of females. With respect to retirement savings, men report they have saved a median of $100,000 for retirement versus $75,000 saved by women.

“Our survey found financial uncertainty among all generations, but it was very pronounced for Generation X,” said Ready. “It’s not too late! They need to quickly step up their savings to leverage their biggest asset the power of time.”

The Great Recession

The Great Recession continues to affect today’s workers, with the highest impact on Generation X: 30 percent of Gen X workers say they “still carry scars” from the financial crisis, versus 27 percent of baby boomers and 24 percent of Millennials.

Looking back on the recession also shows a misconception of market performance over the past decade, as 52 percent of workers say that people who kept their money in the stock market benefitted from a decade of market gains. Generationally, baby boomers were the most likely to agree (62 percent), followed by Gen X respondents (53 percent) and Millennials (43 percent).

The survey also looked at how people view market performance based on asset levels. Fifty-two percent of people surveyed who have assets of between $100,000 and $200,000 say that people who kept their money in the market since 2008 have benefited from the market recovery; the percentage increases to 84 percent for people with $500,000 or more in investable assets.

A little more than half 56 percent say that “the Great Recession of 2008 taught me the value of diversification as a way to ride out market ups and downs.” Baby boomers (62 percent) were most likely to agree with the statement, followed by Gen X respondents (57 percent), and Millennials (50 percent).

“Gains in the last decade have been generally significant for anybody with money in the market,” said Axsater. “The fact that only half of investors recognize that people have benefited from a decade-long bull market is remarkable and demonstrates the need for us to continue to emphasize the power of being invested along with the power of diversification over long market cycles.”

Digital assistance

Despite the rapid adoption and acceptance of digital assistants, such as Siri or Alexa, the majority of workers say they would be unlikely to seek advice from one for retirement planning. Nonetheless, 19 percent of all workers say they would be likely to seek advice from a digital assistant a figure that jumps to 27 percent for Millennials, followed by Gen X respondents (19 percent). Only 8 percent of baby boomers and just 3 percent of retirees are likely to do so.

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