The complexity of family aging is one of the prime reasons American households desperately need more sources of “financial literacy,” according to analysts and educators studying the evolution of the home from a simple shelter to an extremely valuable, complicated asset.

Neal E. Cutler, a professor in the school of business administration at Widener University in Chester, Pa., was asked to explain the new science of “wealth span planning” to a group of mortgage lenders trying to explore the need for consumer financial products and training that were simply not necessary a generation ago.

Consumers simply have fewer years to accumulate wealth and retirement funds – and those funds must last longer. In addition, the role of home equity, employer pensions, reverse mortgages, social security payments, compound interest, health insurance, Medicare and Medicaid needs to be packaged under a sort of “financial gerontology,” according to Cutler.

“Gerontology is not the study of old people,” Cutler said. “It is the study of the aging process – including the middle process. And, financial gerontology is not the study of old money. It is teaching gerontology to financial specialists and teaching finance to gerontology specialists.”

Cutler pointed to data showing the changing balance of the traditional working years. In 1930, many consumers entered the work place at age 17 or 18 – beginning their “accumulation stage” – and worked consistently until they were 65. In 2000, the accumulation stage was pushed back by education to age 25 and retirement began earlier, closer to age 62. Hence, not only are we living longer, but we also have fewer years to prepare for the “expenditure stage” and more potential expenditures.

For example, in 1940 approximately 8 percent of persons age 50 still had both parents alive. In 1990, that number jumped to 27 percent. The comparison is also startling when “children” reach age 60. In 1940, only 13 percent of persons age 60 had at least one parent still living. In 1990, that number leaped to 44 percent. All percentages are expected to rise dramatically when the 2005 numbers are compiled.

“Think of the difference that makes in financial planning,” Cutler said. “I’m often told to make sure my 17-year-old daughter sees that I am extremely nice to my 85-year-old mother. That way, I stand a better chance of her being nice to me when I get old. In the past, we didn’t have to worry about so many people getting old.”

A U.S. Census report estimated that caregivers of older family members or friends can spend approximately $20,000 out of their own pockets over a four-year period to help offset an elder’s care costs. Most of the time, these adult children (nieces, nephews, grandchildren) have children of their own and lose income for taking time away from their primary jobs. An American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) study found that most 45- to 55-year-old Americans are not overly stressed during their actual care-giving time and received satisfaction in providing care for loved ones. However, care helpers, especially those with lower incomes, eventually tended to struggle, and the continual juggling of care giving, children and employment began to raise stress levels.

In a recent survey released by The Conference Board, a New York-based, non-profit research firm, American companies predicted a potential landslide of Baby Boomer retirements in the next two decades. In the once-traditional labor-force timeframe, the number of so many retirements over a short period of time would prove devastating to production. However, there has been evidence that many employees 50 and above are already planning to delay their retirements due to serious losses in their 401(k) accounts and financial assets.

This movement, sometimes known as “job lock,” often is driven by the unknowns of health care insurance and the need to stay employed to afford health care costs. Many of the work stoppages in this country the past 24 months have been over health insurance coverage, not wages.

“Health insurance is no longer a fringe benefit,” Cutler said. “More than 90 percent of families in the U.S. have received their health insurance through the job. When they are faced with paying more of their share, they throw up their hands and say ‘maybe I won’t retire after all.'”

Cutler said the financial complexity of today’s family decisions involve double-income, plural-pension couples who are not wealthy yet have to make choices around two social security pensions, two employer pensions, two individual retirement accounts, home equity and other investments.

“These people are not necessarily rich; their situations are just more complex,” Cutler said. “They need to consider the role of home ownership – in addition to the rest of the assets the juggle – in how they perceive their financial security. Their home definitely is at the center of that puzzle.”

Tom Kelly’s new book “How a Second Home Can Be Your Best Investment” (McGraw-Hill, $16.95) was co-written with John Tuccillo, former chief economist for the National Association of Realtors and is now available in local bookstores. He can be reached at news@tomkelly.com.

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