Survey finds that many Americans are anxious about retirement income

February 25, 2013

Even as the economy slowly improves, the vast majority of Americans remain deeply worried about their ability to achieve a secure retirement, according to a new survey.

The poll, to be released by the National Institute on Retirement Security (NIRS) at a conference on Tuesday, found that 55 percent of Americans are “very concerned” that the current economic conditions are harming their retirement prospects. An additional 30 percent reported being “somewhat concerned” about their ability to retire.

The level of anxiety Americans feel about their preparation for retirement has continued to peak in the recession’s aftermath, a finding that the poll’s sponsors said highlights the need for policymakers to bolster the nation’s retirement programs.

“People are anxious about retirement. We know that,” said Diane Oakley, president of NIRS, a Washington-based nonprofit organization. “The question is, how do you get people to act on that?”

As aging Americans are increasingly burdened by debt, spiraling health-care costs and diminishing pension coverage, an increasing number of researchers argue that a long era of improved living standards for the elderly is now in jeopardy.

Timeline: Retirement benefits over the years

The Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee says the nation faces a $6.6 trillion retirement-savings deficit. Meanwhile, a retirement security index developed by Boston College’s Center on Retirement Research as well as economists at the New School have found that a majority of Americans are at risk of being financially worse off than their parents in retirement.

The Service Employees International Union recently released a fact sheet saying that black and Latino workers are particularly at risk for seeing their standard of living significantly erode in retirement because they tend to have fewer assets, less retirement income and higher medical expenses.

NIRS is among a number of groups calling on the federal government to bolster Social Security benefits or to create a new layer of retirement help for future retirees. But those calls have been overshadowed by concern about the nation’s long-term debt, which has prompted many policymakers to focus on ways to reduce Social Security and other retirement benefits rather than increase them.

The high anxiety Americans feel about retirement has them clamoring for the protections that used to be common for workers, the survey found. More than four in five Americans, for example, have favorable views of traditional pensions, which pay a guaranteed amount to retirees for life. Americans hold that view even though many experts point out that 401(k)s and other defined contribution plans are actually better suited for American workers, who tend to change jobs frequently. The problem is Americans do not save enough in them, and too often tap them for non-retirement needs. Traditional pensions, meanwhile, are most lucrative for workers who retire after a long tenure on the job.

The poll found widespread support for protecting Social Security benefits at current levels, as well as for the idea of a new pension program that would stay with workers even as they changed jobs and offer a guaranteed lifelong income once they retire.

“What people really need is a paycheck for life,” Oakley said.

The telephone survey was conducted in December 2012 and involved 8,000 Americans ages 25 and older, NIRS said.

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