No Longer Ready to Retire

By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 21, 2008

The American Psychological Association released a report showing that the No. 1 cause of anxiety for Americans is money fears.

That was in June.

After last week -- which saw volatile market swings, major bankruptcies of once-stable and venerated Wall Street firms and the largest government intervention in the market since the Depression -- people across the Washington area reported not only heightened anxiety about money, but uncertainty, if not outright fear.

People such as Tim Kenney or Thomas Williams said the summer's stress over rising gas, food and energy prices now feels like nothing. Now they are watching hard-earned savings shrink or simply disappear. Kenney began to wonder if the very foundation of the economy, and with it people's dreams and plans, was crumbling.

Jean Celine, 64, was already so worried about rising health-care costs that she'd been forcing herself to go to the gym every day to stay healthy. After last week, her nerves are shot. Like many her age, she has only a small pot of money to live on for the rest of her life. Any loss is a big loss. And the average 65-year-old retiree can expect to live 17 more years, the AARP says. So this weekend, Celine started a $15-an-hour job. "I'll probably be working for the rest of my life," she said. "Some golden years."

After last week, psychologists took to the airwaves to tell people not to become sick over losing money, advising that pausing was better than panicking. But by then, enough people had sufficiently panicked to make a run on the $3.5 trillion in money market funds, similar to the bank runs that led to the Great Depression.

"It's just amazing in the last four or five days how many times I've heard the words 'The Depression' brought up," said Kevin Flannery, general manager of the Leisure World retirement community. "It's all people are talking about here."

By Friday, after word of the federal intervention, people seemed to breathe a sigh of relief. But the wild week left many with changed visions of what might lie ahead.

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Kenney, 58, had a gauzy vision of what his retirement would look like. A creative type, he didn't want to decamp to Florida or play golf all day. He wanted freedom. That meant having enough money to do only the work that he loved, to compose music, finally get to those two books he's been meaning to write, perhaps buy a farm in Iceland.

But after last week, Kenney, like tens of thousands of people reaching retirement age, is being forced to reconsider his future. Glued to his chair in front of two Mac computer screens, chain-smoking Camel Lights, Kenney watched, wide-eyed, as over the course five business days one-third of the value of his retirement savings simply vanished.

He hasn't slept well since.

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