Average life expectancy has risen dramatically during the last century. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the number of centenarians, people who live to be 100, rose from 2,300 in 1950 to nearly 80,000 in 2010, and will exceed 600,000 by 2050. And according to the Society of Actuaries, a 65-year-old couple now has a 31% chance of at least one spouse living past the age of 95.

According to findings from a new survey from Merrill Lynch, 58% of affluent Americans have a positive view of the prospect of living to be 100. However, three out of four would approach their money management differently if they knew today that they were going to live that long. A few things they’d consider are continuing to work part-time during retirement (39%), investing in an annuity (32%), contributing more to a savings vehicle (32%) and retiring closer to 85 rather than 65 (25%).

In light of longer life expectancies, the majority of respondents (59%) also believe that the age at which Americans are eligible to collect Social Security should be raised.

This survey also found that when it comes to retirement, age is far less of a factor today. Only 14% of respondents over the age of 50 cite "hitting a certain age" as the factor that would most lead them to retire. Instead, two factors more likely to lead them to retire include feeling confident that their assets will grant them the lifestyle they want throughout their remaining years (25%), and a possible health condition (18%) -- their own or that of a family member.

"We hear from our clients that retiring isn't about their age or a magic number, but rather an ongoing assessment of the lifestyle, goals and assets they desire for their later years," says Andy Sieg, head of global wealth and retirement solutions for Bank of America Merrill Lynch. "And most don't view this life stage as a straight stretch of highway so much as a winding road that requires close attention and frequent course corrections."

Expecting to live considerably longer than their grandparents' generation, affluent Americans find themselves in uncharted territory. Many are uncertain about how to adequately save for retirement and how to turn assets into sustainable income once retired, with more than half (55%) concerned about being able to afford the lifestyle they want in retirement.

"Helping individuals and families optimize their financial resources and quality of life during retirement is not a math problem solved solely with a calculator or single product," says David Tyrie, head of personal wealth and retirement for Bank of America Merrill Lynch. "Achieving greater financial security and positive outcomes during retirement is a lifelong challenge solved through insight, planning, shared responsibilities and an array of solutions that can empower you to own the road, instead of the other way around."

If given the choice, half of affluent Americans (51%) not yet retired would rather retire later than make trade-offs to their current lifestyle. However, when push comes to shove, and trade-offs are needed to help ensure their assets sustain them throughout retirement, 81% would make them, including a combination of:  trimming day-to-day expenses (38%); purchasing fewer personal luxuries (35%); and limiting budgets for vacations (32%).

Longevity and the desire to work later in life, because they have to or want to, is redefining the meaning of retirement. The survey found that only one out of four define retirement as never working again. The reality is that three out of four (73%) respondents not yet retired view this life stage as a second act during which they intend to work part- or full-time. Among this group, 30% plan to cycle between work and leisure after reaching the point previously thought of as retirement.

For the third year in a row, survey respondents cite rising health care costs as their top financial concern (79%). One-third of respondents went so far as to say that they are more concerned about the financial strain associated with a significant health situation, such as a chronic illness or disability, than they are about how it may compromise their quality of life. Despite these concerns, 62% of respondents over the age of 50 have not yet estimated what their health care costs may amount to during retirement.

Survey respondents believe future health care costs (26%) and life expectancy (25%) to be the most difficult unknowns when planning for future financial needs.

"Rising health care costs must become part of a holistic planning process that can lead to greater confidence and an improved sense of financial security throughout one's lifetime," says Tyrie.

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