Millions and millions and, for emphasis, even more millions of middle-aged Americans are moving closer to retirement these days. We don’t know exactly when all of them will retire or exactly what retirement will look like. Surveys find many people expect to keep working well past age 65. Yet Social Security shows a preponderance of claimants continue to file for retirement at age 62 or 63.
If we don’t know exactly what retirement looks like, we do know the financial condition of our aging nation filled with Baby Boomers—shaky at best. Even with the resounding comeback of the stock market since the Great Recession, and a slow but steady recovery in most housing markets around the country, retirements for many if not most will not be pretty.
Yet, even if this statement is true (and there are good reasons to challenge just about any absolute statement about retirement security), it’s hardly clear that it amounts to a crisis, or what we should do about it that we’re not already trying to do.
Private employers with 401(k)s and 403(b)s have taken a lot of heat in recent years for not doing more to help employees achieve better retirement outcomes. While employers have been struggling themselves to recover from the recession, they nevertheless have stepped up support for their plans (yes, often after pointed prodding), helped by better federal laws and innovative solutions provided by behavioral economists.
Retirement plans generally now offer better investment choices, lower fees, improved consumer disclosures and a range of participation rules that have raised employee contributions and participation. Retirement-plan balances are rising and projected outcomes portray satisfactory retirement solutions for the overwhelming percentage of plan participants.
The lack of tax-advantaged retirement accounts at smaller employers is widely cited as a major problem here. Roughly half of the nation’s private-sector employees do not even participate in a retirement plan and most of them work for smaller employers. President Obama and members of Congress have repeatedly proposed new retirement plans targeted to this population. There is also support for relaxing ostensibly pro-consumer safeguards for investment plans that have had the unintended consequence of making it harder for smaller employers to create and manage such plans.
We can argue about the pace and degree of change here. But it’s not as if anyone is turning a blind eye to the problem. And we should hardly be surprised that reallocating federal budget dollars to help improve retirement outcomes is not likely to happen these days. It is true that government budget deficits are declining. But they are still large, and government costs for helping our aging population—primarily through Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid—are set to soar in future decades.
Academic researchers have long identified Americans’ financial illiteracy as a primary cause of poor retirement planning and outcomes. And they have further urged schools and community colleges to greatly expand financial education courses. This is happening, albeit too slowly. But such efforts are more likely to help turn things around for future generations than for boomers whose financial realities for retirement already are largely determined.
Today’s reality, then, is that we have limited dollars and not much time to improve retirement outcomes, especially for people within 10 years of retirement. To move ahead, we must target our efforts where they will do the most good. To do this, we first have to recognize some unpleasant realities that have long been elephants in the room when it comes to retirement policy discussions.
- Longevity gains are putting unforeseen pressures on retirement prospects. We are living longer, meaning we need to save more money for longer retirements, and we will have less to spend during retirement. Expecting employers or governments to “fix” this problem is naïve.
- Social Security is the only source of retirement income for half of all American seniors and even the dominant source for another 25 percent. If you really want to improve retirement prospects for most Americans, you can do so by boosting Social Security payouts. If you don’t want to increase government spending in the process, you will need to boost taxes on the top tier of wage-earners.
- Expecting any voluntary savings program to make a difference in the retirement prospects of lower-earning Americans is not realistic. They either don’t have or are unlikely to set aside extra funds, even with attractive tax incentives (which, of course, could add to federal deficits).
- Citing the decline of traditional pensions as the cause of our retirement crisis is a popular theme among 401(k) critics. But it’s not accurate. Even during the prime of traditional pensions, fewer than 30 percent of employees actually qualified for and received payouts. Pensions improved retirement prospects mostly for the same types of employees who are now being helped by 401(k) plans. The difference, of course, is that pensions were funded and invested by employers; they took all the risks. Today, employees take on all the risk.
- The notion that Social Security simply pays people back for what they put into the system in taxes is false. So is the prevalent attitude toward Social Security that “I paid for it; it’s mine.” The program’s progressive payout rules provide retirement benefits that replace much larger percentages of people’s incomes for people who don’t earn much money. For people who earn only 25 percent of the nation’s average wages, for example, Social Security benefits replace 77 percent of their income. People who earn the top amount of wages subject to payroll taxes qualify for benefits that replace only 28 percent of their incomes.
In reality, Social Security is a massive income redistribution program. You may think this is a good thing or a bad thing, but at least we should recognize the program for what it is. In terms of retirement, Social Security has evolved into the only game in town for most of us.
Among the top 50 percent, there is no retirement crisis for people aged 65 and older in the top quartile of income. They make enough money and also are big beneficiaries of tax breaks provided to holders of 401(k)s and IRAs. The next quartile is the sweet spot for retirement plans, and the evidence is clear that these savers are increasingly on track toward decent retirements.
Author, book on Social Security, under contract with Simon & Schuster
Speaker, on retirement and successful aging
Journalist and Editor, American History of Business Journalism
Research Fellow, Sloan Center on Aging & Work, Boston College