Here's the frightening vision: Everyone knows Americans are aging and that retirement looms for the baby boom generation. Yet instead of the elderly saying goodbye to their colleagues for the last time and picking up the keys to their condo they'll be forced to earn money as a Wal-Mart greeter and move into a trailer.

Too bad. There are good reasons to believe that the age apocalypse won't arrive -- far from it. Yes, times are tough. But a series of broad, mutually reinforcing changes will make an aging population much more of an economic asset than before.

Among them, people can be more productive far longer in an information-and-services economy than one dominated by factories and heavy industry.

Healthier lifestyles and medical advances are postponing disability among the elderly. A productive elderly workforce will make it far easier to finance looming Social Security and Medicare bills.

But how do you figure how they're doing right now? Forget the economy. What about your household?

First, put down the 401(k) statements. Instead, start by asking what kind of life you want to lead in the years ahead. What do you want to do? Do you dream of staying in your community or moving to another state? Is traveling the world your vision of the good life, or is it making a shift into a volunteer job or maybe even starting your own business?

Second, the word "retirement" is misleading. More people continue to make some money during retirement. Earning an income -- no matter how little -- delays the day when you have to start drawing down savings. Working even a few years past the traditional retirement age can dramatically boost the bottom line.

Expenses matter. But many people discover their vision of a good retirement is a variation on the life they've lived and the activities they've enjoyed. Many retirees learn how to make significant cuts in expenses without slashing their standard of living.

Years ago I clipped a letter to the editor because the writer captured the idea so well: "You can get by on a lot less when you're retired, without really depriving yourself of anything important.... If I had known earlier how much 'wealth' derives from such simple pleasures, I would have retired much sooner."

Of course, there is much more to planning for retirement. But thinking through what you want to get out of life is a good way to cut through the gloom.

Chris Farrell is economics editor for "Marketplace Money." Send your questions to