A poll by Gallup last year showed that for two-thirds of Americans, not having enough money for retirement topped seven other financial worries, including medical bills, mortgage payments and their children’s college tuitions.
Worrying about having enough money for retirement is not a new phenomenon. But the rise of the 401(k), dating to the early 1980s, has steadily shifted more financial responsibility onto the shoulders of many Americans who are — let’s face it — clueless.
The number of people who are unprepared is growing. In 1983, researchers now at the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College calculated that 31 percent of working-age households were “at risk” of not being able to maintain their standard of living after they retired. By 2009, it was 51 percent.
“I don’t know how you feel, but managing your own money is just horrible,” said Alicia Munnell, director of the center. “We just don’t know how to do it.”
Consider the hurdles between every American with a 401(k) and a decent retirement: First, wade through your HR department’s paperwork to enroll in a plan at your company. Second, save enough. (Imagine what you think is enough. Then save more.) Next, manage your investments intelligently through stock market highs and lows, tending to your portfolio every year to make sure you have the right balance of stocks and bonds, and avoid withdrawing any money early. And not least, when you retire, ration your money at just the right rate: not so little that you live uncomfortably but not so much that you run out.
The result has been a system that works well for people who know how to use it. For many others, it’s better than nothing, but it still may not be enough.
“Does the system work or not? It’s really a ‘compared to what’ question,” said Eric Toder of the Urban Institute. “One side emphasizes the glass is half-full and the other emphasizes the glass is half-empty. The real question is, how do we make the system work better for the people for whom it’s not working while not destroying the benefits?”
As company pension plans peter out, Munnell estimates that it will be another decade before people rely almost entirely on their 401(k)s.
That means 10 more years before a system — once imagined to be only supplementary to Social Security and pension plans — is fully tested. That’s 10 years in which bigger waves of workers sign up for a savings vehicle that they expect will see them through old age.
For the past several years, there’s been a movement to fix the 401(k), or at least make it work better for average people — that is to say, almost all of us — who are bound to make some mistakes along the way.
Reformers want the 401(k) of the future to look very different. But even the program’s biggest critics concede that the system that was unwittingly launched in 1978 is here to stay.