(Re)Solving the Retirement ‘Crisis’

By Nevin Adams • June 18, 2018 • 0 Comments
Several weeks back, I was invited to participate in a group conversation on retirement and the future of prosperity.

The group of 15 (they’re listed at the end of the document that summarized the conclusions) that Politico pulled together was diverse, both in background and philosophies, and included academics, think tanks, advocacy groups, and the Hill. It was conducted under Chatham House rules, which means that while our comments might be shared, they wouldn’t be specifically attributed. That latter point was helpful to the openness of the discussion, where several individuals had opinions that they acknowledged wouldn’t be supported by the groups they represent.

The conversation touched on a wide range of topics, everything from the key challenges to the current system, the private sector’s role in addressing these problems, the individual’s role (and responsibility) for securing their own retirement, government’s role and the potential for current congressional proposals to have an impact.

In view of the diversity of the group — the complexity of the topics — and the 90-minute window of time we had to thrash things about, you might well expect that we didn’t get very far. And, at least in terms of new ideas, you’d be hard-pressed to say that we discussed anything that hadn’t come up somewhere, sometime, previously. But then, this was a group that — individually, anyway — has spent a lot of time thinking about the issues. And there were some new and interesting perspectives.

The Challenges

It seems that you can never have a discussion about the future of retirement without spending time bemoaning the past, specifically the move away from defined benefit plans, and this group was no exception. There remains in many circles a pervasive sense that the defined contribution system is inferior to the defined benefit approach — a sense that seems driven not by what the latter actually produced in terms of benefits, but in terms of what it promised. Even now, it seems that you have to remind folks that the “less than half” covered by a workplace retirement plan was true even in the “good old days” before the 401(k), at least within the private sector. And while you can wrest an acknowledgement from those familiar with the data, almost no one talks about how few of even those covered by those DB plans put in the time to get their full pension.

There was a clear and consistent understanding in the group that health care costs and concerns were a big impediment to retirement savings, both on the part of employers and workers alike. People still make job decisions based on health care — on retirement plan designs, not so much. And when it comes to deciding whether to fund health care or retirement — well, health care wins hands down.

College debt was another impediment discussed. Oh, individuals have long graduated from college owing money – but never so many, and likely never so much (though you might be surprised what an inflation-adjusted figure from 20 years ago looks like). It is, for many, an enormous draw on current income – and one that has a due date that falls well before when retirement’s bill is presented for payment.

Women have a unique set of challenges. For many, the pay gap while they are working is exacerbated by the time out of the workplace raising children. They live longer, invest more conservatively, and ultimately bear higher health care costs — and increasingly find themselves in the role of caregiver, rather than bringing home a paycheck.

For many in the group, financial literacy still holds sway as a great hope to turn things around. There are plenty of individual examples of its impact, though the current research casts doubt on its widespread efficacy. Surely a basic understanding of key financial concepts couldn’t hurt (though don’t even get me started on the criteria that purports to establish “literacy”) — but it’s a solution that is surely at least a generation removed from the ability to have a widespread impact.

On a related note, the group was generally optimistic about the impact that the growing emphasis on financial wellness could have, both in terms of encouraging better behaviors, and a heightened awareness of key financial concepts. The involvement of employers, and employment-based programs seems likely to enhance the impact beyond financial literacy alone.

Resolving Recommendations

Ultimately, the group coalesced around four key recommendations:

The significance of Social Security in underpinning America’s retirement future — and the critical need to shore up the finances of that system sooner rather than later. The solution(s) here are simple; cut benefits (push back eligibility or means-testing) or raise FICA taxes. The mix, of course, is anything but simple politically — but time isn’t in our favor on a solution.

The formation of a national commission to study and recommend solutions. I’ll put myself in the “what harm could it do?” camp, particularly in that, to my recollection, nothing like this has been attempted since the Carter administration. We routinely chastise Americans for not taking the time to formulate a financial plan — perhaps it’s time we undertook that discipline for the system as a whole.

Requirements matter — but don’t call it a mandate. Since it’s been established that workers are much more likely to save for retirement if they have access to a plan at work (12 times as likely), but you’re concerned that not enough workers have access to a retirement savings plan at work, there was little doubt that a government mandate could make a big difference. There was even less doubt that a mandate would be a massive lift politically. And not much stomach in the group for going down that path at the present.

Expanded access to retirement accounts. While the group was hardly of one mind in terms of what kind of retirement account(s) this should be, there was a clear and energetic majority that agreed with the premise that expanding access is an, and perhaps the – integral component to “securing retirement” for future generations.

And maybe this one.