Most Americans are unprepared for retirement — here’s how to fix that
The extended U.S. government shutdown that occurred earlier this year shined an unflattering spotlight on our country’s financial preparedness.
It revealed that many people who wouldn’t typically be considered impoverished are still clearly living paycheck to paycheck. This certainly doesn’t bode well for them saving enough money to be financially independent in retirement.
Now, more than ever, retirement is built on personal savings and it’s up to the individual — not the government or employers — to make that dream a reality. The notion of working your entire life while simultaneously stashing away money for your future is something I frequently refer to as, “the great retirement experiment.” Let’s take a look at how we got here.
How our modern retirement system came to be
Before the 20th century, our country’s economy was based almost entirely on agriculture. Americans didn’t have hopes or dreams about retirement in the 1700s, 1800s or even early 1900s. They simply worked until they no longer could, and hoped that their families would take care of them in old age.
The retirement system that we know of today didn’t come into existence until after World War II. Following the war, companies hired people in droves and provided pensions. At the time, this was the best concept available for retirement security and many people from this generation benefited. My grandparents, for example, retired with a full pension and my father retired with a partial pension. As time went on, however, companies realized funding these programs entailed a lot of complexity and decided to freeze pensions or stop offering them altogether.
In the late 1970s, the government recognized these resources wouldn’t sufficiently support people through their retirement years, so it implemented tax-deferred savings accounts and the 401(k) was born shortly thereafter in the early 1980s.
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The broken three-legged stool of retirement
Over many decades, we have come to think of retirement as a three-legged stool consisting of Social Security, a pension and personal savings, all working together to fund your retirement. Today, the three-legged stool looks more like a pogo stick.
Social Security, the first leg, is projected to have a reduction in benefits by 2034, if no changes are made today. This program was introduced in 1935 and originally designed to help those in dire need of financial assistance. It was never intended to be relied on as heavily as it is today as a primary means of retirement income.
Personal pensions, the second leg, have recently seen a staggering, swift disappearance. This chart, provided by CNN Business with data from Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, depicts the shrinking population of workers covered by company pensions. Today, the majority of workers don’t expect to see a pension unless they’re unionized or government employees.
With pensions nearly extinct and Social Security looking less and less reliable as a means of income, the onus is now largely on individual citizens to save enough money during their lifetimes for retirement, serving as the vital “pogo stick” leg of the stool. Realistically speaking, can people bear that burden?
This is why we call it the great retirement experiment. Although the outcome is unknown, it must be brought to light.
The challenge is that not everyone takes a diligent and responsible approach to saving for retirement on their own, nor should they be expected to. We have asked everyday people to become both financial and investment experts, which ultimately may set them up for failure. Not to mention, people are now living longer than ever before and working later in life to fund retirement or catch up on lost savings.
How defaulting to Social Security could change it all
So, how can we solve the issue of underfunded retirements? While there is no surefire solution, I believe a significant adjustment to our Social Security system could alleviate much of the burden currently placed on everyday Americans.
Let’s keep Social Security as we know it today, the same. However, let’s augment the required Social Security savings from both the employer and the employee by doubling the amount saved, which would add an additional 12.4% (6.2% employer contribution, 6.2% personal contribution, doubling it would increase it to 24.8%) of income contributed to retirement. This could be credited into an account that is in the individual’s name so they have complete control over the investments, but won’t be able to access to the funds until normal retirement age.
Retirement accounts like 401(k)s and IRAs would still be in play, just not as the main source of income. This also solves the portability issues with retirement accounts. If the Social Security account is already under an individual’s ownership, it doesn’t matter how often you change jobs.
Bottom line, our retirement system is not as good as it gets. Savers must be aware of the flaws in the existing retirement savings experiment as well as the great responsibility of saving for their own future.