It’s no secret that there is a retirement savings crisis in the United States. Financial planners frequently warn that Americans are not saving enough for retirement. Stagnating wages and the gradual disappearance of pensions in the private sector make it that much more difficult to save. The results of a recent survey by the National Institute on Retirement Security (NIRS) reveal that 88 percent of Americans believe there is a retirement savings crisis. So this begs the question: are working families prepared for retirement?
The Center for Retirement Research (CRR) issued a research brief recently in which they compared results from the National Retirement Risk Index (NRRI) with households’ self-reported retirement preparedness. The NRRI measures how many households are at risk of falling behind their current standard of living in retirement. CRR notes that the percentage of households at risk of falling behind in retirement has steadily risen over the past 25 years (from 30% in 1989 to 52% in 2013).
What CRR found in their research is that about 60 percent of households had a good sense of their retirement preparedness; however, that 60 percent includes both families that know they are prepared for retirement and those that know they are not prepared. Of the 40 percent that do not have a good sense of their preparedness, it was roughly divided between households that are too worried about retirement and households that are not worried enough.
Among the 19 percent of households that are not worried enough about their retirement preparedness, a major cause is “wealth illusion” among households with 401(k) accounts. Let’s say a worker has $100,000 in her 401(k) account. She may think that she has a lot of money saved for retirement, while not realizing that this will only produce about $400/month in retirement. A major problem with 401(k) plans is that they leave too much choice to individual workers. Unless they pay for professional financial advice, many workers do not know how much to set aside each month for retirement, how to invest it, or what to do with it when they do reach retirement. Even if they do receive professional advice, many working families may not be able to set aside enough each month for a secure retirement.
According to the NIRS survey, 85 percent of Americans say workers should have access to a defined benefit pension and 77 percent say the disappearance of traditional pensions has made it more difficult to achieve retirement security. Moreover, 85 percent say that political leaders in Washington don’t understand how difficult it is too retire.
Are working families prepared for retirement? No, not according to experts or the families themselves. A strong majority of Americans worry about their own retirement and many are at real risk of falling behind in retirement. Furthermore, about a fifth of households are not prepared for retirement and don’t realize it. As the private sector has abandoned pensions in favor of 401(k)s, it has become more challenging for working families to achieve a secure and dignified retirement. Following a similar path in the public sector would only worsen an already increasing retirement security crisis.