Attitudes about retirement show new levels of delusion

The Baltimore Sun

I marvel at our ability to delude ourselves.

The latest example is the 17th annual Retirement Confidence Survey, a comprehensive study of Americans' attitudes toward retirement and preparedness (or lack of) for it.

Through the years, American workers have displayed an unrealistic confidence that they'll have enough money to retire comfortably. This year's results, in the face of widespread cuts in employer-provided benefits, reach a new level of self-delusion.

"American workers may be slow in recognizing how the U.S. retirement system is changing," the survey found, "and those who are aware of these changes may not be adapting to them in ways that are likely to secure them a comfortable retirement."

The not-for-profit Employee Benefit Research Institute and research firm Mathew Greenwald & Associates, which have sponsored this survey since 1991, like to use mild language like this.

I will be more blunt.

American workers are dreaming they'll be all right in retirement - this year 72 percent are confident - even though they've saved a pittance or, in some cases, nothing.

In this dream, most think they'll get full Social Security benefits before they're eligible. Many are counting on pension, health and long-term care benefits they won't have.

Also, they underestimate the amount of money they'll need and overestimate how long they'll be able to work.

Judge for yourself:

Only 41 percent of more than 1,000 randomly selected workers surveyed said they or their spouse have a "defined-benefit" plan that offers a monthly pension for life. Yet, although many employers are eliminating these plans, 62 percent of workers say they are expecting to receive income from one in retirement. (How is that for wishful thinking?) And 41 percent expect to receive retiree health insurance even though the number of employers offering this benefit is rapidly declining.

One in four workers and more than a third of 251 retirees surveyed say they have long-term-care insurance (separate from health insurance, Medicare or Medicaid). Industry estimates indicate only 10 percent of Americans 65 and over have such insurance, "suggesting that many are counting on coverage they do not actually have," the survey said.

Americans' savings levels are "modest," the survey found. One-third of workers 55 and over, the group with the most savings, have less than $25,000. Fewer than half have saved more than $100,000. One-third of workers 45 and over are not saving anything for retirement, and less than half have tried to calculate how much they will need.

Despite a 10-year government campaign to educate the public, including the mailing of individual statements, a mere 19 percent of workers - and only 42 percent of those 55 and over - know when they will be eligible for unreduced Social Security benefits. (The age of eligibility is rising gradually until it reaches 67 in 2027.)

Worse, 51 percent of workers believe they will be eligible before they are. For the one-third of workers who have not saved a dime for retirement, Social Security is the largest expected source of retirement income.

More than one-fourth of workers estimate it takes less than $250,000 in savings to retire. (Invested at 5 percent, $250,000 would bring in only $12,500 a year - before taxes.)

Most workers expect to do some work for pay after retirement. But the retirement survey has consistently found that about four in 10 retirees (37 percent this year) had to leave work earlier than planned, with many giving reasons such as health problems, changes at their company, or having to care for a spouse or family member.

Time to wake up?

Humberto Cruz writes for Tribune Media Services.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad