The 2013 Canadian Unretirement Index Report from Sun Life Canada (www.sunlife.ca/unretirementindex) provides, in my opinion, a fascinating perspective on the psychological health of Canadians aged 30 to 65, at least as it relates to money.  The survey has been in place for five years, starting in 2007, and spanning the global financial crisis (GFC) of 2008-2009.  There is a very sharp change in response from 2009 to 2010.  Projecting out to their life at age 66, 55% in 2009 thought they would be retired.  By 2010 this number had decreased to 28%.  This is a remarkably large one year drop of 27%.  Since 2010 results have remained stable.

The survey offers additional insight into the reasons people project they will be working by the time they reach age 66.  The results display lifestyle versus economic reasons on a grid (page 4 of survey booklet) http://cdn.sunlife.com/static/canada/sunlifeca/About%20us/Canadian%20Unretirement%20Index/2013_Sun_Life_Canadian_Unretirement_Index_Report_en.pdf.  Lifestyle is most important in 2008 and 2009.  By 2010 lifestyle is completely replaced by economic concerns.  Pre GFC, working is all about staying mentally active.  Post GFC working is all about money.  So what’s happened to see such a flip-flop in attitudes for working at age 66?

It’s unlikely that the Canadians surveyed (age 30 to 65) have experienced a substantial change in their investment portfolios or income.  GFC did shock portfolios but most Canadians were not heavily invested in equities and the markets are recovering.  Unlike in the U.S., Canadians did not lose significant investment value and for most there has been an increase in real estate value.  In a nutshell – the GFC changed the financial awareness of Canadians and with that came a change in psychological well-being related to money matters.  The crisis took place in an era of anytime, anywhere communications.  It was impossible to escape the bad news about the GFC.  Many of the media headlines were frightening.  The changes in the financial industry, particularly the collapse of key institutions in the U.S., were frightening.  Each of us felt financially vulnerable to something significant, out of our control and difficult to understand.

Information released since the ‘storm’ of the GFC has continued to be alarming, even though it is much less frequent.  Those who are closest to retirement are the most likely to feel vulnerable because their future lifestyle in retirement hinges on the current size of their savings and investments.  There is little time left for them to make up any shortfalls.  There is little motivation to take much risk after the GFC.

The GFC has created an entirely new retirement planning environment.  The dramatic change in survey responses in the Sunlife Unretirement Index are not about money.  The responses are indicating a new fragility in Canadian investors.  Canadians feel vulnerable to institutions, government policies and other macro factors that are out of their control.  It is a new day in the financial industry.  Awareness, innovation and transparency by the financial industry are needed – yet are still lacking.  When it comes to money, Canadians now know what they don’t know and it’s a lot more risky than they expected.