- The Washington Times - Monday, August 19, 2002

ATLANTA Carlos Vargas believed he was set for life when he retired a year ago after 21 years with Nortel in Florida. He had a company pension and a 401(k) worth $300,000.
"I was 60, and I thought I would be enjoying a life of leisure," Mr. Vargas said. "We moved to Atlanta to be close to my granddaughter and we traveled around for six months."
But when the value of his 401(k) plummeted to less than $11,000, Mr. Vargas saw his retirement dream vanish like a mirage.
"I was upset and confused," he said. "Most of the money was in company stock, and I kept seeing it going down and down. I didn't know what I was going to do."
As the stock market continues to scramble nest eggs, millions of Americans who dream of luxurious, or at least carefree, retirements at 60 or even in their 50s have been bruised emotionally as well as financially.
"It's psychologically devastating," said Diane Harris, a financial columnist for My Generation magazine. "The people I talk to are shellshocked, wondering how the stock market plunge is going to affect their future. It's not only a question of postponing retirement; some boomers have relatively young children and they don't know how they're going to pay for their college."
The anxiety level hasn't reached the panic stage, but it is outpacing the Dow Jones Industrial Average. More than 10,000 baby boomers turning 50 every day suddenly realize that they may have to work until they are 70, Miss Harris says.
"It's like a double whammy for a lot of people," said Atlanta psychiatrist Richard Weiner. "This is coming on the heels of so many job cutbacks already. People are nervous. I'm sure it's creating a great deal of stress with family members and colleagues at work. They feel less in control, not only in their personal finances, but about what they're going to do with their lives."
A year ago, Dick Rhodes was looking forward to retiring this Sept. 1 to a life of leisure, with trips to Europe five or six times a year.
"I had planned on not doing anything except what I wanted to," said the 64-year-old purchasing director of Capital City Country Club, "but after I lost $50,000 or $60,000 in my IRAs, I decided I would wait until February to get out."
Mr. Rhodes, who blames corporate greed for the turmoil, says he is angry with unscrupulous executives who have undermined the system.
"Now when I tell young guys to put their money in 401(k)s and the stock market for the long haul, they don't believe me. They've lost faith in the market and [would] rather put it in a savings account," he said.
If the situation doesn't improve, Mr. Rhodes says, he will keep working until it does. "Or maybe I'll set aside enough for a good life for 15 years and then call the Hemlock Society."
Others are continuing to work and modifying their retirement plans. A recent Gallup poll showed 26 percent of workers in their 50s now are considering delaying retirement.
"There was an 8.4 percent jump last year in the number of people 55 and over in the labor force," said Sara Rix, senior policy adviser for AARP. With boomers expected to live another 20 to 30 years after retirement, she says, there is a fear of not having enough money in the face of the unknown and unexpected. "What if there is a medical catastrophe or you need long-term care, or one of your children loses his or her job?"
Those concerns are what made Mr. Vargas jump back into the labor pool at the age of 61. After researching the options, he interviewed with First Union bank and, to his surprise, was hired as a branch manager.
"I feel very lucky to have gone from one profession to another," said Mr. Vargas, who had been a senior project manager for Latin America at Nortel. "And, because it is so different, I'm enjoying learning new things."
Some who retire only to find themselves trying to get back into the work force are not so fortunate. John Patterson of BellSouth has seen several of his friends leave the phone company with the intention of getting part-time jobs to supplement their retirement incomes.
"Some of them have been looking for over a year," he said. "That's one reason I postponed my retirement. I'm just now 56, so it was a mite early. But what I had planned was to retire and just use the interest from my 401(k) if I needed to. That option has been eliminated."

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