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Young people have a reasonable grasp of retirement

Those golden retirement years.

White sandy beaches. Lush fairways. Jet-setting travel. Time to tap into your fat nest egg.

Those idyllic notions didn't come from adults but straight from a group of teenage girls I met recently at a workshop in Kansas City, Mo.

But when it comes to understanding the realities of retirement, especially the financial implications, what do kids really know?

The short answer is: Far more than you might think.

That much I discovered from a talk I gave several weeks ago to a group of about 40 Girl Scouts. During my presentation, I gave the girls a written assignment. I wanted to find out, first, what the concept of retirement meant to them and, second, how much money they thought someone would need to live on later in life.

It was not surprising that for some of these girls, the notion of retirement brought to mind nursing homes, sleeping long hours, rocking chairs, playing golf or vacationing in exotic destinations. And it was not surprising that many of the girls thought a retiree would need to have socked away many millions of dollars to live comfortably.

But what was surprising was that a number of the Girl Scouts commented about Social Security, pensions and second careers. Some also knew that many issues play into the retirement financial equation.

Danielle Golon, a 15-year-old high schooler, offered these thoughtful comments:

"Retirement to me means a time in your life where you are set to relax from the pressures of midlife. You start off as a child, where your parents support you. Then you move on to the teenage years, where you start up your life. You start to earn money but still are helped by your parents. You hit your 20s, and that is pretty much where you are on your own . . . for 50 years. By your 70s, you enjoy your money and take life easy."

Jessica Rice, 13, said retirement is a time in life when "I don't have to work at the job I am working at. I can work where I want, even if it does not pay well."

Added Liz Schaller, also 13: "To me, retirement means that after a certain amount of years working at some place or if you're at the age for Social Security, then you can retire from your job."

How much would you need to save?

"It depends where you live," wrote Amanda Moore, 17. "You need enough to pay bills, house payments, car payments, insurance, food or any other things that come up. That money can come from savings or from a part-time job."

Kelly Alvarez, 16, figured you would need retirement savings of at least $1.5-million. "Of course, the amount would vary on different people, since everyone has a different view on retirement and lifestyle," she wrote.

Finally, these thoughts from Emily Becker, 13: "There is really no set number. It all depends on how much money you made, who you're married to and your insurance rates."

After reading the Girl Scouts' comments, I wondered how older Americans would describe the retirement years to kids.

I put that question to reader William Smallwood, a 73-year-old former high school science teacher turned writer who lives in Idaho.

"The thought of retirement has never entered my mind," Smallwood responded in an e-mail. "I have the best job in the world and cannot think of anything I could do to have as much fun."

His unspoken message to the younger generation: Test new ideas and careers as you reach your 60s, 70s and beyond.

My take on the topic: I'd tell my kids I never plan to totally quit working regardless of what's left of my savings. As long as I'm in good health, I figure my life will continue to be a work in progress. And perhaps, if I'm lucky, there will also be a little time for those white, sandy beaches.

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