While Congress tosses all kinds of scenarios around about the future of retirement benefits like Medicare or Social Security — while doing absolutely nothing about it — we shouldn't be terribly surprised that real people are feeling as insecure about their post-employment years as ever.
The latest survey from the Employee Benefit Research Institute found that despite last year's stock market gains, workers are less confident this year than last that they'll have enough money for a comfortable retirement. Indeed, 28 percent are "not at all confident," which is five points above last year and the highest ever recorded (surpassing 27 percent in 2011).
The problem is no mere mood swing. Many feel this way because they've come to the realization that they have saved not nearly enough for a retirement that's likely to be longer and more expensive than their parents had ever contemplated.
Over the last 23 years, the retirement confidence survey has often roughly tracked the economy and the stock market. The 2007 crash saw those who were "very confident" fall from 41 percent to 18 percent. The difference this time is that there hasn't been much of a recovery in confidence during the last six years, despite much-improved stock market returns, including a record high Dow Jones Industrial Average.
The survey's authors suggest all kinds of reasons for this. Families have had more pressing financial concerns; people are not able to set aside as much in retirement savings as they have in the past; many are struggling with debt; and relatively few have gotten professional investment advice to even know what they should be doing.
All of which may be true, but the bottom line is that at a time when people are worried about whether Social Security and Medicare benefits will be available to them, fewer have the benefit of a pension — and they realize that their own retirement savings programs are not adequate.
How inadequate? According to Fidelity Investments, one of the nation's largest administrators of defined contribution plans with 12 million participants, the average 401(k) balance was $77,300 by the end of last year. That's a new record but hardly a cause for celebration. The same Fidelity report found the average worker at age 55 had only about $143,300 in his or her 401(k).
Considering that conventional wisdom is to set aside at least 11 times one's salary by retirement age, it's not hard to see why defined contribution plans are not the retirement lifelines some may have expected. Experts fret that participation rates are too low and point out that many workers actually set aside more in savings before the advent of the defined contribution plan.
This much should be clear to policymakers. As it's currently constituted, the 401(k) approach to a comfortable retirement is not working for many Americans, and they know it. Washington needs to take a second look at this complex issue and whether tax-deferral offers an adequate incentive for workers to save.
Clearly, expecting Americans to defer a portion of their compensation doesn't work when so many are living hand-to-mouth in an era of high unemployment and real estate values that fail to surpass mortgage costs. Nor do the current rules necessarily offer employers an adequate incentive to offer such plans or to contribute adequately toward them.
The problem may be troubling for baby boomers, but it could be far worse for members of Generations X and Y, who are likely to be more dependent on savings yet less able to save enough. If a comfortable retirement is an established part of the American dream, that shared aspiration has become more fleeting, particularly for the middle class.
Surely, this is as urgent a problem as the financial health of taxpayer-financed retirement benefits. At least in the case of the latter, the bill can be spread into the future. With retirement savings, the buck stops at age 65 — or probably later. Except for those lucky few with a bevy of financially comfortable children ready and able to pay their parents' bills, Americans' skepticism about what the future holds is quite justified.