Expectations vs. Reality Concerning Retirement

One in four retirees think life in retirement is worse than it was before they retired according to a poll by the Harvard School of Public Health, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and NPR. The poll shows stark differences between what pre-retirees think retirement will be like, and what retirees say is actually the case.

"Those of us over 50 and working are optimistic about our future health and health care, but that optimism is not necessarily shared by those who have already retired," said Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, MD, MBA, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. "Many people who have already retired say their health is worse, and they worry about costs of medical treatment and long-term care. Insights from the poll can help policy makers and others think about how to meet the needs of aging Americans. There are changes we can make to our health care system, finances and communities that might help ensure that our retirement years will be as fulfilling as we hope."

The poll focuses on views and experiences related to retirement among people over age 50, including not only people who have retired, but also people who plan to retire ("pre-retirees") and those who do not plan to do so. It was conducted by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health.

"The poll shows that a significant number of people who are near retirement may be underestimating the challenges of retirement," said Robert Blendon, professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health. "When you compare what people think retirement will be like with what retirees say it actually is like, there are big differences. Pre-retirees may underestimate the degree to which their health and finances may be worse in retirement."


This poll is part of an on-going series of surveys developed by researchers at the Harvard Opinion Research Program (HORP) at the Harvard School of Public Health in partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and NPR. The research team consists of

Harvard School of Public Health: Robert J. Blendon, Professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis and Executive Director of HORP; Gillian K. SteelFisher, Research Scientist and Assistant Director of HORP; Johanna Mailhot, Research Specialist; and Eran Ben-Porath of SSRS/ICR, an independent research company.

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation: Fred Mann, Interim Vice President, Communications; Kate Sullivan Hare, Director Policy Outreach and Public Affairs; and David Colby, Vice President, Research and Evaluation.

NPR: Joe Neel, Deputy Senior Supervising Editor; Anne Gudenkauf, Senior Supervising Editor, Science Desk; Steve Drummond, Senior National Editor.

Interviews were conducted via telephone (including both landline and cell phone) by SSRS/ICR of Media (PA) July 25 to August 18, 2011 among a nationally representative sample of 1254 adults over 50. It includes 755 are retirees and 409 are pre-retirees (those who have not retired but plan to). The margin of error for total respondents is +/-3.32% at the 95% confidence level.

Possible sources of non-sampling error include non-response bias, as well as question wording and ordering effects. Non-response in telephone surveys produces some known biases in survey-derived estimates because participation tends to vary for different subgroups of the population. To compensate for these known biases and for variations in probability of selection within and across households, sample data are weighted by household size, cell phone/landline use and demographics (sex, age, race/ethnicity, education, marital status and census region) to reflect the true population. Other techniques, including random- digit dialing, replicate subsamples, and systematic respondent selection within households, are used to ensure that the sample is representative.