Welcome to a time of pessimism on retirement in America

The Baltimore Sun

Forget the scenes of blissful gray-haired couples prancing on exotic moonlit beaches.

As Americans contemplate their futures, they are a pessimistic crew - more pessimistic than any time in nearly two decades about their prospects for retiring comfortably, according to a study by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, a nonprofit organization that has been surveying Americans since 1991.

More than 80 percent of working Americans questioned said they are not sure they will have enough money to get through retirement.

Only 18 percent say they are "very confident" that they will have enough money for a comfortable retirement, according to the national survey. And there has been a sharp erosion in well-being in just a year: When EBRI surveyed Americans a year ago, 27 percent were feeling "very confident" that they were on track.


The glum mood is widespread - infecting people who have retired, as well as those with many years left at work. In part, it is a symptom of bad economic times. But it is also time catching up with people who have been more inclined to hope for the best rather than save adequately throughout life.

For example, people who start investing $20 a week on a first job should accumulate close to $1 million by the time they retire, but many procrastinate rather than starting small.

In recent years, though, pollsters have detected a calm among many people in retirement.

In part, that is because some have pension money that supplements Social Security payments, said Jack VanDerhei, a Temple University professor and EBRI fellow, who conducted the study along with Mathew Greenwald & Associates.

But even with the help of pensions, the harsh realities of medical costs are eating at retirees' comfort levels.

A year ago, 41 percent of the people who had retired thought they would be fine financially throughout retirement. In this year's survey, only 29 percent of people were very confident they would be OK.

Most people retire without calculating what they will need, and fast-rising health care costs are taking them by surprise, VanDerhei said.

EBRI's research shows that about half of current workers have saved $50,000 or less, and 25 percent said they have saved nothing.

Yet a couple retiring this year should expect to pay $250,000 during retirement for the medical costs Medicare does not cover, VanDerhei said. For couples living to age 90, Fidelity has calculated medical costs to be more than $400,000.

"People have a false sense of optimism," VanDerhei said. "It's been showing up for years."

What VanDerhei finds most surprising about this year's research is that the optimism has faded.

He is not sure why, but he said it may be "workers are waking up to the lack of health insurance in retirement."

He thinks that the election year hum about health care costs and weaknesses in the Medicare and Social Security systems might have made Americans aware that they are going to face extraordinary expenses that are not covered by the government.

In addition, Frank Newport, editor of the Gallup Poll, said Americans are showing "extraordinarily negative" attitudes in virtually every type of polling that is being done.

Asked whether the economy is getting better or worse, 85 percent say "worse." That is one of the most pessimistic readings Gallup has measured.

Newport said people have been growing increasingly negative each month, starting in January. In April, the plunge stopped, but there has not been improvement.

The gloomy period has coincided with increasingly dreary headlines about the housing market, the financial system, the stock market and the economy in general.

At the same time, food and energy costs have been rising, and Newport said Americans are feeling the pinch.

But despite a dreary mood, VanDerhei says people remain more optimistic than they should be about retirement savings. Millions of Americans will be unable to cover basic living expenses with their savings, he said. EBRI has calculated a $45 billion annual shortfall by 2030.


And yet Americans still delude themselves, he said.

While only 24 percent of Americans are working for employers that provide pensions - or guaranteed payments in retirement - 86 percent of people think they will somehow end up with a pension, VanDerhei said.

Instead, he said, Americans are going to be on their own to save more money than any previous generation. Those who have 401(k) plans and save on average 7 percent a year should be OK, he said. Yet most people don't average that because they change jobs and no longer have 401(k)s or "make mistakes like borrowing from their 401(k)."

In other words, he says, they are right to be worried about their future.

And he suggests a first step is doing a simple calculation to determine how they stand. Try the "ballpark estimate" at www. choosetosave.org.


Gail MarksJarvis is a Your Money columnist.

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