More than half of people surveyed in an Associated Press-GfK poll released Wednesday said they worry that they will have to work longer because the value of their retirement savings has declined.
Denise Edwards, 62, now expects to work for at least another decade selling condominiums because of the damage to her and her husband John's retirement savings.
"We just have to work for as long as possible. And we're going to have to count on our (two) daughters," said Edwards, who lives in a Virginia suburb of Washington.
In the last four years, Edward's IRA has hovered at about the same level, and the couple's other savings of less than $1 million have taken a double-digit hit this fall. They also still owe $425,000 on a house with a market value of $650,000.
The meltdown in the markets comes as pensions are being eliminated. The burden is increasingly on individuals to manage their own 401(k) plans and invest in the market.
In 1980, 60 percent of workers were covered by defined-benefit pension plans and just 17 percent relied on defined-contribution plans, such as a 401(k), according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.
By 2004, the numbers had changed dramatically: 11 percent of workers were covered by defined-benefit plans and 61 percent were covered by defined-contribution plans.
"I think what this catastrophe in the financial markets highlights is how vulnerable this approach to retirement makes people," said Alicia Munnell, director of the center. "Their welfare depends on market gyrations. They can be very responsible and still end up being hurt."
Fifty-five percent of people surveyed for the AP-GfK poll said they were worried that the financial crisis would reduce their savings and force them to postpone retirement. The poll, conducted Sept. 27-30, was based on phone interviews with a nationally representative sample of 1,160 adults. It had a margin of error of 2.9 percent.
Investors have endured a rough ride in the market. The third quarter's decline of 4.4 percent marked the Dow's fourth straight quarter of losses - the longest losing streak since a five-quarter drop that ended in 1978.
And it's not just that their investments have declined by nearly 24 percent since last October. It's the worry that the market won't make up those losses anytime soon.
Morningstar Vice President John Rekenthaler said investors can expect to wait as much as three years to recover the market losses they see in their 401(k) or other investment accounts.
The five bear markets since the 1960s have lasted an average of 3.4 years from the beginning of the decline to recovery, according to Morningstar's Ibbotson Associates.
For some Americans, the solution is to delay the retirement party.
Twenty-nine percent of people in their late 60s were working in 2006, up from 18 percent in 1985, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Over the next decade, the number of workers who are 55 and older is expected to increase at more than five times the rate of the overall work force, the BLS reported.
Cherie Miller, 55, of Crawfordville, Fla., retired a month ago after 35 years in a secretarial job at Florida State University. But she will start a new job next week, working in an elementary school cafeteria, to make ends meet.
Her pension pays about $1,200 a month. But because she's too young for Medicare, and because her husband Robert, 57, is a self-employed golf course equipment repairman, she needs to spend about $1,100 monthly for health insurance.
"That insurance is so high that I'm going to have to continue to work just so I have insurance," she said. "And just the way the stock market is going right now, it's kind of scary."
Miller's pension is split about evenly between a money market account and a conservative fund made up mostly of bonds.
Bryan Hancock, a certified financial planner in Birmingham, Ala., said if investors have a well thought-out investment plan, they shouldn't need a sudden change of course. People who are close to retirement should avoid heavy investments in stocks, he said.
As a result, many advisers say investors may want to revisit their portfolio allocation - the mix of stocks and bonds - to assess if it's appropriate for their risk tolerance and the number of years left to retirement.
For 65-year-old John Howe, everything has been called into question.
"Oh, my God, I'm going to have to work until they put me in the hole!'" said Howe, 65, of Kingsville, Texas, joking about the market's historic drop earlier this week.
He had planned to retire in less than a year from his job as chief operating officer of a shipping and storage container company. But Howe and his wife, Linda, a retired teacher, now have reason to question their goal of building a home in Austin.
"The jury's still out," Howe said. "If the market doesn't recover in a year, a year and a half, and our rollovers and IRAs and so on stay down, then that'll be a problem."
Associated Press writers Dave Carpenter in Chicago and Matt Sedensky in Miami contributed to this report.