How the Great Recession Changed Americans for the Better

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- You don't need to be a graduate of the London School of Economics to know "near-retirees" -- those Americans in their 50s and 60s -- were among the demographic groups hit the hardest by the Great Recession.

While the reverberations of the recession are still felt -- just check out those disappointing jobs numbers Friday -- apparently Americans nearing retirement have learned some valuable financial lessons over the past five years and are putting them to good use.

They'd better.

The New York Times says baby boomers nearing retirement age "lost the most earnings power of any age group, with their household incomes below what they made when the recovery began three years ago" -- even as their kids were entering college and their parents were entering nursing homes.

The economic downturn was a "wakeup call," according to data from Fidelity Investments, the Boston mutual fund behemoth.

In a study called Five Years Later, Fidelity says the recession triggered "both positive and permanent" personal financial behaviors among boomers, even after seeing the downturn eat into their retirement savings and curb their annual income levels.

According to the report, 47% of U.S. adult investors said they lost "significant income" due to the Great Recession. In dollar terms, Fidelity measures those financial losses at 34% of total investable assets at the lowest point of the recession.

In addition, 17% of heads of household lost their jobs, and 64% of U.S. adults said they were either "scared or confused" by the economic collapse.

But guess what?

The Fidelity study reports that 56% were able to rise above their anxiety and make good changes in their personal finances. In other words, when Americans could have panicked over the decline in their retirement assets, they didn't. Better yet, they found a healthy dose of inner strength and managed to turn their financial picture around for the better.

"Emerging from the depths of the crisis, many investors found resolve and started taking control of their personal economy," explains Kathleen Murphy, president of personal investing at Fidelity Investments. "Whether it was increasing contribution rates to a 401(k) or IRA, adjusting asset allocation or increasing the frequency of financial discussions with family, the silver lining of this crisis is that it spurred investors to reassess and take action to improve their finances."

Apparently, Americans are well past the point of blaming bankers or politicians for the economic crisis.

That's in the rearview mirror, as 56% of survey respondents believe it is now their job to take control of their own financial situation. That same number went from being "scared" about the economy to being "confident" about their ability to weather the storm.

Whether it's more near-retirees beefing up their retirement savings, taking steps to reduce their personal debt or build an emergency fund, 78% of those surveyed by Fidelity say these positive changes are "permanent."

That's one silver lining coming out of the economic recovery playbook, and it comes at a time there's no margin for error among older workers looking for some financial stability in retirement.

"These positive behavioral changes found in the survey are significant, and we are seeing a similar trend with some of our workplace participants increasing their savings since the downturn," says James M. MacDonald, president of workplace investing at Fidelity. "We're starting to witness a more engaged individual emerge over the last five years, and we've seen some of the inertia that held many back start to dissipate."

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