Thursday, October 29, 2015

Why You Need to Pay Attention to the Retirement Crisis (even if your retirement is fully funded)

A recent survey in Forbes of attitudes toward retirement revealed 18% of Americans believe they are very prepared for the expenses of retirement. A report of the Employee Benefit Research Institute, however, estimates that 43% of Americans believe they are unprepared. The remaining 39% are uncertain about their ability to support themselves in retirement. Many of those who are unprepared believe the government will find a way to support them in their golden years. While those comfortable in their own plans believe the retirement crisis is simply "not their problem". Both groups are wrong. Here's why.

Currently in America, half of pre-retirees (age 55-64) have no retirement savings, while the half that do show median savings of $111,000. The median retirement savings of this age cohort as a whole (including both those with and those without funded accounts) is only $14,000. By 2030, just fifteen years from now, Americans age 65 and over will total 70 million. Half, or 35 million people, will have no retirement savings. The median balance of those with savings will support retirement income of about $370 per month. So, another 17.5 million will be grossly underfunded in their retirement savings. Roughly 9% of this group, or 6.3 million work for public sector agencies, often with good retirement plans and benefits. This means roughly 46 million people will neither have the benefit of public employee pension plans, nor adequate personal retirement savings. By 2030, US total population is projected to be on the order of 375 million people, so this group of economically distressed seniors will represent an estimated 12.3% of the nation's population.

First, as to why the government can't make this problem go away. The 2015 Trustees Report of the Social Security Administration shows a projected date of insolvency of the Social Security Trust fund of 2034. By that date, the Trustees predict, Social Security will only be able to pay roughly 75% of annual benefits. Now, median annual benefits of Social Security last year were just $15,000, so (in current dollars) median benefits would be reduced down to $10,000 per year (75% of $15,000), substantially below the poverty line. For the fund as a whole, the present value deficit of Social Security today, again per the Trustees report, is a staggering $10.7 trillion.

Now, why this is your problem, even if you believe it is not. If you've been reading along, you have a sense of the magnitude of the retirement crisis and can begin to imagine the consequences to the economy of a burden of 46 million seniors living in poverty. But consider this. In addition to the under-funding of personal retirement accounts and Social Security mentioned above, US state and local government pension plans are underfunded by an estimated $4 trillion. These are funds that governments are legally responsible to pay retirees. To raise the funds necessary to pay their pension obligations, governments will turn to...taxpayers. There is no one else. Now, don't shoot the messenger, as bad as the problem is, it's still better to be aware of the issue now, while some solutions still exist. 

If you'd like to read more about the retirement crisis and what can be done about it, please check out my new book, Up In Smoke: How the Retirement Crisis Shattered the American Dream, available now on