The introduction of the touchstone, a simple tablet of fieldstone, slate or other dark stone with a fine-grained surface, proved to be a game changer in the ancient world. Scraping the surface of a touchstone with gold or other precious metal left a visible trace of different colors that could quickly be assessed for quality and purity. This humble innovation led to the introduction of a monetary economy and stimulated trade from Greece to Persia.
The modern world is seeking a new kind of touchstone as it prepares to live for an extended period in retirement. Increasingly, financial advisors are being called on to assess their clients' financial readiness for retirement and help them determine whether they have the monetary wherewithal to set and sustain a comfortable standard of living through their so-called "Golden Years."
Today's Voice of Reason
As the ancient world used touchstones to validate coinage, today's consumers are striving to validate their retirement plans. Many people have overly optimistic expectations about retirement, particularly when it comes to lifestyles, timing, return on investments and income sources. Conversely, the market meltdown of 2008-2009 has discouraged others, prompting them to surrender any notions of retirement or ever getting back on track financially.
More than ever, clients need a touchstone or voice of reason to help them sort through these complicated and often very personal issues. They need someone who can take an objective view of their situation, provide a professional and balanced assessment and ultimately guide them to the right path, even if that means presenting information they may not want to hear. They need professional financial advice.
But as any advisor knows, needing advice and actually getting it are not the same. Many clients find it challenging to put aside daily concerns and focus on the future. They are putting off the imperative of seeking objective advice so necessary for calibrating their expectations. Dr. Joseph Coughlin, founding director of the MIT AgeLab, says that advisors have more competition for their clients' attention than ever before.
"The tyranny of life's daily activities forces issues and people to compete for attention," Coughlin points out. "Work, children, relationships, volunteering, health, faith, all the great and little things that make up daily life—these issues, no matter how mundane, command urgency and action. While all adults are 'stressed,' baby-boomer consumers are now caught between the demands of children and parents, the peak of responsibility in their careers and managing the emergency of their own health issues."
So what does it take to compete with all of that? Coughlin says that advisors need to make appeals to their clients that are both urgent and proximate to how they are living today. "Action must be taken (by the client) not because it is the right thing to do, but because other priorities (e.g., family members) may suffer if a decision is not made." He urges advisors to redefine their practices to be realistic, relevant and responsive to the context and daily activities of consumers ages 45 and older.
For boomers—famous for pursuing nontraditional life experiences—retirement means different things to different people. Advisors need to take the time to learn how each client views his or her mature years evolving. Two themes are becoming more prevalent: longevity planning and working longer.
First, it's no longer about the number. At one time, many people wanted to know how much they needed to save and accumulate to live out their lives in relative comfort once they stopped working. As Americans live longer and the number of centenarians increases exponentially, it's less about retirement and more about longevity.
How prepared financially are your clients to live well into their 80s or even 90s? Do they have sources of guaranteed income that will last as long as they do? What resources and support mechanisms do they have to help them as their health and physically capabilities deteriorate? For many people, longevity planning means creating sources of funding that can be tapped in older ages to remain as independent as possible and avoid becoming a burden to their family. Long-term care, longevity insurance and new flexible life insurance solutions with living benefits may be appropriate.
Also, more people see themselves working far past the traditional retirement age. Sometimes that means working in their present capacity for as long as possible. In other instances, it means starting a new career, consulting or even working part-time simply to remain productive, social and engaged. Your clients may not stop working at age 60, but instead will transition from five days a week to four. What role can you play as an advisor to help make that happen?
While every age group experiences the stresses of daily life, Coughlin says, those age 45 and older are likely to experience more demands on their time, finances, emotions and mental resources than any other. Those stresses can include dealing with children in the terrible teens, managing college expenses, welcoming young adults back home after they retreat from a difficult job market, and coping with the health and financial issues of older parents or other older relatives.
Oftentimes, advisors overlook simple strategies that not only can meet a client's more immediate needs but can also lead to bigger opportunities in the future. For example, a client who is wrestling with rising college tuition might benefit from a 529 college savings strategy. Or a client whose income precludes her from contributing to a Roth IRA might appreciate the opportunity to convert a non-qualified IRA to a Roth IRA. "Today's consumers are saying, 'Don't talk to me about what happens 20 years from now when I don't know where I'll be in the next 20 minutes!'" Coughlin says.
Saturdays have become one of the most heavily congested days on the nation's roads as Americans scramble to check off lists of chores they could not get to during their busy work week. That means advisors must find ways to meet their clients on their terms.
Twenty years ago, our doctor's advice might have been "take two aspirin and call me in the morning." But today, patients have likely self-diagnosed themselves with a dozen different diseases from a list of 32 symptoms they discovered on the web. In a similar way, your clients will be looking to research and validate financial options before making decisions. Are you incorporating technology via web tools and helpful websites that your firm provides or allows you to access?
In its own way, the touchstone provided a source of realism, relevance and responsiveness for citizens of the ancient world. Its ability to assess the value of precious metals brought a new sense of security and trust, enabling peoples from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea to move ahead with their commerce and their lives.
As an advisor with the ability to assess retirement readiness—no matter how your clients define the term—you too can help them move toward the future with a greater sense of confidence, security and trust. You can do so by serving as their retirement touchstone.
John Diehl, CFP, is a senior vice president for The Hartford's wealth management business.
The views expressed here are those of John Diehl and should not be construed as investment advice.
The Hartford is The Hartford Financial Services Group, Inc. Annuities are issued by Hartford Life and Annuity Insurance Company and Hartford Life Insurance Company. The Hartford is a founding
partner of the MIT AgeLab, which is not an affiliate or subsidiary of The Hartford.