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More Canadians are heading into their golden years under a burden of debt, suggesting they'll have to return to work, sell assets or cut back spending.

Forty-four per cent of retired Canadians now say they are carrying debt into retirement, up from 39 per cent last year, a national poll showed Wednesday.

The most common responses to squeezed finances are to move - to either a smaller place or a rental - or to live more frugally, Royal Bank of Canada's second annual retirement survey found. The third-most-common response is to stay at home but sell assets.

The findings come as the first of the baby boomers turns 65 this year, a wave that has drawn significant attention from demographers and policy makers alike. Politicians are busy courting seniors' votes while many companies are adjusting their human resources strategies to the reality that people employees are either delaying retirement or returning to work. Financial institutions - such as RBC and Sun Life - are also ramping up research on the topic, aiming to garner more of their business.

"What we're seeing is the effect of the economy, and possibly some people have gone into retirement a little sooner than they should have with their lifestyles," said Lee Anne Davies, a gerontologist and head of the bank's retirement strategies.

Canadian households are strained with record levels of debt, and these findings suggest older people are not immune. Reasons for the mounting debt levels among the 55-plus crowd vary. Canadians are more comfortable with debt, more people have acquired pricey assets such as luxurious homes and more now have complex family arrangements - such as multiple marriages or breakups - that can pressure finances, Ms. Davies said.

The poll was conducted in February and March, based on a national sample of 2,245 adults aged 50 and over with household assets of at least $100,000.

Of those who said they are returning to work after retirement, financial need was cited as the top reason, a reflection of the lingering effects of the recession and its bite on investments and incomes.

The RBC poll comes amid a slew of retirement surveys this year, many of which show a lack of preparedness (and predictable offers to become the financial adviser of choice). But beyond the marketing ploy, real themes are emerging - chiefly that a comfortable retirement is much more elusive than it used to be.

For example, more than half of respondents don't think they can afford their dream retirement lifestyle and one in three thinks they won't have enough to pay their basic retirement living expenses, an Investors Group survey in November found. A Sun Life poll last month found the average age that Canadians expect to retire is now 68, a huge shift from just a year ago, when it was 65.

Squeezed finances are driving more retirees back into the work force to make ends meet and that, too, has ripple effects. For one, it may cause more competition among job seekers and displace others in the labour market. The jobless rate for youth, at 14.4 per cent, and for immigrants, at 9.1 per cent, is still well above the national average of 7.7 per cent.

By contrast, the jobless rate for those aged 55 and over is 6.6 per cent, suggesting they're faring relatively well at finding work.

Having more experienced workers in the work force has numerous positive offshoots, though. For older workers, it generates extra income, giving them more chance to spend, pay down debts and stay mentally active. For employers, it alleviates labour shortages and helps pass on knowledge and skills to younger workers. And for governments, it spells more tax revenue and fewer payments in benefits.

Staying employed also carries health benefits, Statistics Canada research showed earlier this year. It found that older Canadians who have fully retired typically report worse general health, more chronic health conditions and are less physically active than their counterparts who remained on the job, even after controlling for age differences.