"When can I retire?"
The answer to that question used to be fairly straightforward.
For decades, financial planners calculated a person's ability to retire using four basic components -- what one spends, what one saves, what one owns, and what one owes.
Add them all up, figure in a person's life expectancy, and generally a planner could render a "yes" or "no" opinion on the age a client hoped to retire, within three to five years.
"It used to be that you burned the mortgage. You had a defined benefit pension plan, you had Social Security, you worked and you paid off the mortgage, and you didn't have any debt. You turned 65 and you walked out the door," said Phil Selden, a veteran financial planner and president of the Toledo, Ohio, board of the Financial Planners Association.
But over the last decade, and especially since the 2007 recession, finding an answer to that previously simple question is a lot harder.
The 2000s have brought two recessions, slumping housing values, overburdened pension plans, soaring medical costs, exploding college costs, and a shifting investment landscape.
These days, planners say, only one issue still instills any reasonable certainty: Social Security.
"That needs to be the mainstay for all Americans for having some sustained lifetime income," said Jean Setzfand. a financial security expert for AARP in Washington.
"Beyond that, people are being left to their own devices to establish a retirement nest egg for themselves, and they have to know how much to set aside and find an easy way to do so. The easiest is to save at the workplace, and the best way is through a 401(k) savings plan," she said. "But only half of workers have a 401(k) available to them. The ability to save these days is not easy. You have so many obstacles."
Don Roork, a financial planner and president of AssetDynamics, said the list of risks that impede retirement now includes longevity, inflation, interest rates, health care, and investments. But many clients, he added, don't want to hear about it.
"It's like Americans feel it's their birthright to retire at a specific age," Roork said. "But I think that age is going to go up."
Selden said longevity is a problem delaying retirement for many.
The average person now lives about eight years longer than the average person did in 1970, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Now the average man lives to be 76, the average woman 81.
Roork said the health-care risk is much greater than it was two decades ago, with the possibility of a catastrophic illness or mishap wiping away much of one's retirement nest egg as one approaches retirement.
Knowing that the game has changed, many planners are still trying to advise clients on retirement based on tried-and-true logic: what kind of lifestyle do you want in retirement, and how much money will you need to save to maintain that?
Selden said he advises clients to "control what you have control over." Currently, that comes down to three things: taxes, savings, and spending.
But America seems to be losing the battle for restrained spending, according to a 2011 survey by SunAmerica Financial Group.
The life insurance firm, which surveyed American attitudes about retirement in 2002 and then updated parts of that survey a year ago, found that two classes of people woefully unprepared for retirement had increased over the last nine years.
A class of workers SunAmerica called "Live for Todays" -- that is, those with retirement ambitions but who have saved for it on average 18 years and are unprepared for it -- rose from 22 percent in 2002 to 27 percent. Another class, "Worried Strugglers," that is those who see retirement as a period of financial worry and stress, rose from 19 percent to 35 percent.
"It's pretty clear, as you know, that many Americans are willfully and sadly unprepared for retirement," said Larry Mark, a SunAmerica spokesman.