As Washington turns in the coming weeks from the presidential election to the long-term debt issues facing the nation, the discussions will center on whether the country can afford programs such as Social Security and Medicare in their current form.
So far, these debates have focused little on how potential cuts in federal benefits may affect retirement for younger generations of workers who already are seeing employers shrink their safety nets.
The confluence of events is creating a dichotomy in the nation’s workforce and a massive burden for the country that will not be fully evident until the next generation approaches retirement.
“We have a looming retirement-income crisis in this country,” said Diane Oakley, executive director of the National Institute on Retirement Security. “The problem is we won’t see the ultimate brunt of it until 30 years down the road when it is too late to do something about it.”
Young workers are having little or no say in any of this, but the changes will affect them most.
“How the hell do I get ahead?” said Sandra Conchar, 27, director of community relations at Potomac Pizza, a local restaurant chain. “And retirement? Oh, God.”
Blue-chip corporate giants such as IBM and Verizon are among those that have closed their traditional pension plans to new workers in order to limit future liabilities. Meanwhile, public workers in states from Rhode Island to California have seen pension promises scaled back as governments struggle to reduce debt.
As it is, most workers are vastly underprepared for retirement. Although coverage is near universal among the small minority of workers employed in the public sector, just over two in five private-sector workers between ages 25 and 64 are covered by pensions or 401(k)-type retirement plans in their current jobs, according to Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research. On average, workers in their prime working years have a retirement funding gap of $90,000 per household, the center has found.
The share of workers covered by traditional pensions has been dwindling since the 1980s, and now the plans are a cherished rarity for young workers.
Adding to the challenge, the recession forced many young workers to launch their careers later, which reduces their earnings — and their ability to save for retirement — in ways many are unlikely to overcome, analysts say.
Even as the labor market slowly improves, the prospects for young workers remain difficult. More than half of recent high school graduates are underemployed, as are nearly one in five recent college graduates, according to the Economic Policy Institute.