How To Solve America’s Retirement Savings Crisis
It might seem weird, but a serious worry I carry around for my five young-adult children – on top of concerns about their health and happiness – is whether they’ll ever be able to afford to retire.
My father was a county judge and fortunate to have a public-sector pension to retire on. My husband and I have been lucky in our careers and can see beyond the purchase of five college educations for our kids to a time in our 60s or, egad, 70s, when our savings and social security will sustain us nicely. But luck, good health, and career success shouldn’t be requisites for a dignified existence in old age.
Like a number of enormous long-term problems in the U.S., the retirement savings crisis isn’t getting much constructive political attention. There’s a national shortfall in retirement savings, estimated at $4.13 trillion for heads-of-households aged 25-to-64, by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, and at $6.8 trillion or more by the National Institute on Retirement Security; 29% of those aged 55-to-64 have no retirement savings and no pension, according to the General Accountability Office; 401(k) participation rates hover around 50% and, even among those using the plans, 39% have account balances of less than $10,000, EBRI says. The maximum monthly Social Security benefit for those retiring at full retirement age is a mere $2,687; the average payment is about $1,360 for all retirees, or less than $16,000 a year.
The good news is the situation is far from hopeless. But we need to stop rejecting each potential solution merely because it’s not a complete fix, and start embracing a combination of solutions to form an overall fix. Business leaders can lead the way on this. My list isn’t complete or perfect – it may lean too far right or too far left for you, so suggest your own — but we need a place to begin:
–Social Security: stop saying it’s broken. It’s not. It needs adjustment to ensure long-term viability. Options include moderate increases in contributions and in retirement ages and a moderate decrease in payouts. Everyone suffers a little. Get this done – a similar adjustment was made without undue fuss during the Reagan Administration — and we can move on to more difficult tasks.
–We need a compulsory supplemental retirement system. Before rejecting this by claiming that it’s against our national character, please remember that Social Security is compulsory. And treasured. And the optional, 401(k) only works for those with the additional income to save; the lower half of income producers don’t participate, and their retirement preparedness has deteriorated sharply. Australia’s supplemental system, begun in 1992, quickly pushed that country near the top rankings of global retirement systems, and has largely made old-age income worries a thing of the past. It began with a 3% income diversion and is on its way to 12% by 2020. Other countries could teach us new tricks, as well; the U.S. ranks a discouraging 13th on the Melbourne Mercer Global Pension Index. Our goal needs to be maintaining of standard-of-living after retirement age for working Americans, instead of the painful step down many now endure.
–Make employee ownership of companies large and small, in all its forms, a national priority. It makes for stronger, more competitive companies. And for most workers at the nation’s 7,000 or so companies owned by employee stock ownership plans, it’s a path to far greater retirement savings. Yes, there’s a concern about too many eggs in one basket, but ESOP companies offer secondary plans like 401(k)s in greater number than non-ESOP companies. And workers typically don’t invest their money — they’re granted stock over time as a company benefit. Employee ownership is capitalism played as a team sport. Legislation pending in the Senate and House, enjoying bipartisan support, would make it easier for company owners to sell to an ESOP, but we could do so much more to turn workers into owners.
–I worry about people thinking they can go it alone. I have an MBA in finance from the University of Chicago and wouldn’t take on managing my own money. Neither should most individuals.
–How can you save for retirement when technology, or the sale of your employer, eliminates your job? People work longer and change jobs more often, so crucial to retirement savings is an effective system of job retraining. Not some pipe dream at a local trade school, but actual industry-backed apprenticeship programs that train people and then hire them. Many community colleges have begun such train-to-hire programs with local employers, but we need a good many more and at higher levels of skill.
The steps I propose wouldn’t weaken our economy – they’d strengthen it with increased capital formation from savings, better competitiveness from a trained and committed workforce, and a lot less anxiety for so many of us.