If you’re relying blindly on hallowed personal finance averages—planning for 40 years of work, saving 15 percent of salary—you could be in for a rocky retirement.

Retirement advice is made to be tailored to our needs and the times. People often sit down to figure out how much they will need and assume they’ll spend 40 years in the workforce, from age 25 to age 65, more or less. That’s an outmoded assumption from the days when defined-benefit pension plans roamed the earth, said Diane Garnick, TIAA‘s chief income strategist.

“We don’t have that labor market anymore,” she said. “It couldn’t be farther from the truth.”

Women in particular need to look out. These rules of thumb are often inadequate to the reality of their shorter careers and longer lives.1 Women who are widowed are twice as likely to be living in poverty as their male counterparts, according to the National Institute on Retirement Security.

Some advice from a new paper (PDF) by Garnick:

Go easy when predicting your time in the workforce

Men, on average, spend 38 years in the workforce, and women 29, Social Security data show. So “if women aren’t quite saving the $18,000 tax-deferred maximum in a 401(k) and are thinking they’ll take time off in the next few years, they should try to start contributing the max before they leave,” Garnick said. “They’ll only be able to save up to $5,500 in an IRA when they’re out of the workforce.”

The chart below shows the reality of men’s and women’s employment lives, neither of which meets the 40-year span that has been considered a full career. That said, the percentage of women working full-time in their late sixties is up, according to new research.


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