The real debt-and-deficit crisis facing our country isn’t national—it’s personal. A look at the coming retirement apocalypse and what we have to do to avoid it
The retirement scenario everyone wants to avoid arrives in 2030. That’s when the largest demographic group in U.S. history, the baby boomers, will have nearly depleted the Social Security trust fund. It’s also when older Generation X-ers will begin moving out of work and into their golden years.
But these won’t be the years of leisure that recent generations have known. Consider a typical 2030 retiree–an educated Gen X woman, around 65, who has worked all her life at small and midsize companies. Those firms have created most of the new jobs in the economy for the past 50 years, but only 15% of them offer formal retirement plans. Our retiree has put away savings here and there, but she’s also part of the middle class, which took the biggest wealth hit during the financial crisis of 2008. That–along with the fact that average real wages have been virtually flat for three decades, even as living costs have risen–means she has minimal savings, even less than the $42,000 that today’s average retiree leaves work with.
More than half her retirement income comes from Social Security. When you factor in health care spending, she’ll be living on only about 41% of the average national wage. Despite her best efforts to work and save, our Gen X retiree will have trouble maintaining her standard of living. She won’t be alone: the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College estimates that 50% of American retirees will be in the same boat.
In all likelihood, then, she won’t actually be retired. Like many of her peers, our Gen X-er finds herself needing a part-time job; she shares her home and many living expenses with her son, a millennial who isn’t doing so well himself. More members of his generation live with Mom and Dad than any generation before, according to the Pew Research Center, in part because they came of age in the post-financial-crisis era, when wages were stagnant and unemployment high. (If you enter the workplace during such cycles, your income never catches up.) As he struggles to pay down student loans and save enough money to move out, there’s very little left over–which means he’s on course for an even less secure retirement than his mother.
Boomers scrambling to get by on a minimal income. Gen X-ers who can’t afford to stop working. Millennials staring at a bleak financial future. This is the retirement apocalypse coming at us fast–unless we do something about it now. As with other big, slow-moving crises (climate change, health care, the quality of education), it’s difficult to create a sense of urgency over retirement security. But in the past few years, the financial meltdown and its aftermath have thrown the problem into sharper relief. Now, in a retirement landscape that has witnessed few big innovations since the Reagan Administration and the rise of the 401(k) account, we’re suddenly seeing a range of new ideas.
Controversially, many of the new approaches call for a greater role for government after three decades of pushing responsibility for retirement onto individuals. They include everything from President Obama’s MyRA plan, which would let some individuals save in a fund administered by the U.S. Treasury, to a spate of state-run programs. The most intriguing–and hotly debated–approach is taking shape in California, where state senator Kevin de León has pushed through a bill that aims to guarantee every Californian working in the private sector a living wage in retirement, a plan some experts say could become a new model for the nation.
Advocates say the government role will help recruit more people to save and can keep costs low with efficiencies of scale derived from all those participants–much as some big public-employee plans do. But the reforms are being challenged by everyone from small-government conservatives, alarmed by a growing public role, to financial-services companies, which fear that government-run plans will put money into simple index funds rather than the managed funds that generate more lucrative fees for the industry.
Regardless of the eventual solution, few dispute that we’re on a dire course at present. Experts estimate that half of Americans are at risk of becoming economically insecure in retirement. Our system is in desperate need of a fix. “We’re facing a tsunami,” says Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa who has proposed his own program. “And we’ve got to deal with it–now.”
If there’s one place in America that best captures the complex mix of economic, social and demographic trends that play into the looming retirement crisis, it’s California. Like many other national stories, this one bubbled up early in the Golden State. Long before Detroit went bust, the state was in the news for its public-pension troubles, including massive bankruptcies in Stockton, Vallejo and San Bernardino. California is also emblematic of all the worrisome trends: it has more retirees, young people without benefits, poor people, immigrants and small and midsize businesses than most states. In other words, it checks all the boxes of groups most at risk of an insecure retirement.
Yet the Golden State is also coming up with some of the most forward-thinking ideas. De León’s approach, called the California Secure Choice Retirement Savings Program (CSC), was signed into law in 2012 by Governor Jerry Brown. It aims to combine the best of old-style defined-benefit plans (traditional pensions that guarantee workers a set level of yearly income in retirement) with the flexibility and mobility of a 401(k). CSC will cover workers in California who don’t currently have access to formal retirement savings via their work. “I’m a big fan,” says Monique Morrissey, an economist with the liberal Economic Policy Institute who recently testified before Congress on retirement security. “It’s probably the farthest along of all the retirement-reform ideas in terms of practical implementation.”
Details of the plan, which will launch in early 2016, are now being hashed out in consultation with a variety of industry and academic experts. It’s likely that CSC will use behavioral nudges to get as many eligible people as possible to participate–for instance, by making enrollment automatic unless a worker opts out, rather than requiring a sign-up to opt in.
Participants in CSC would sock away at least 3% of their income, most likely in a conservative index fund, in which money is invested in all the stocks listed in a specified index. For instance, in an S&P 500 fund, the pooled money is invested in all 500 stocks in that index. Index funds are considered a simple way to ensure that investors see the same return as the overall stock market–and they’re cheaper too, since index funds don’t employ stock-picking wizards and charge the related fees.
The possibility of more workers putting savings into such low-cost funds may help explain why CSC is getting resistance from the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA), a trade group for securities firms and asset managers. But a version of this plan has already been enacted for nonprofit workers in Massachusetts, and plans similar to CSC are being discussed by governors and legislatures in states including New York, Illinois, Oregon, Washington, Connecticut, Maryland, Minnesota and Arizona. If successful, CSC and plans like it would put the government deeper in the business of guaranteeing retirement security. They would also underscore the fact that a 100% private, do-it-yourself system isn’t working–at least for many Americans.
De León, the force behind CSC, was raised by his Mexican mother, who died of cancer at 54, and his aunt. Both women worked as maids in various affluent California homes. De León says he became focused on retirement security last year when his aunt, who is 74, fell ill and couldn’t work.
“She was still cleaning homes in La Jolla when she had a stroke. She had no IRA, no 401(k), nothing. She had been working essentially freelance,” says de León. “I became her 401(k). I had to give her money because her Social Security didn’t suffice for her basic expenses, like housing, food, medication, a bus pass.”
De León’s district, in downtown Los Angeles, is home to many people in a similar fix. A melting pot that includes the city’s Chinatown, Koreatown, Little Armenia and other ethnic enclaves, it’s full of small entrepreneurs, immigrants and freelancers who work not at big blue chips but in the less secure firms and “gig economy” that’s increasingly becoming the norm in America.
Paula Dromi is one of those workers. A 75-year-old social worker, Dromi lives in a small three-bedroom bungalow near de León’s office in downtown L.A. with one of her two grown sons (who moved back to save money after a period of unemployment) as well as a friend. Both housemates help Dromi pay major living expenses. Her Social Security plus the money she makes working as a part-time freelance therapist amounts to about $1,700 a month. But her home insurance, property taxes and mortgage alone are nearly $1,500. Both she and her journalist husband (who died in 2000) saved for retirement, but years of co-payments on medical bills for his brain illness depleted both his $35,000 IRA and their $30,000 in savings.
Dromi was left with her $60,000 IRA–lower than it might have been because she changed jobs often and, like many other women, took time off to raise children–and her home, which is valued at $442,000. She could always sell the house. But if she did, she says, she’d have to move out of L.A. because of its lack of cheaper housing. Instead she has pieced together a multigenerational home and a freelance work life that she hopes she can maintain indefinitely. “I’ll be working another 20 years, assuming I can,” says Dromi.
In a way, Dromi is lucky. She has a home that she can share and is healthy enough to work, at least for the time being. But the fact that an educated professional who saved and had health insurance can end up scraping to get by in retirement underscores how fragile the system is.
That fragility is in large part due to the massive shifts in the American retirement system since 1980. That’s when the 401(k) plan was invented, by a benefits consultant working on a cash-bonus scheme for bankers, who had the idea to take advantage of an obscure provision in the tax code passed two years earlier, allowing for deferred compensation of individuals to be matched by their company.
The result was the 401(k), a savings account that lets employees contribute pretax income from their paycheck (sometimes with employers matching some or all of the amount) but, unlike the traditional pension, does not promise a specific regular payment upon retirement. Holders of 401(k)s amass a hopefully growing fund from which they can draw money when they retire.
This system is largely based on accident and anomaly–401(k)s were never meant to replace traditional pensions as a primary retirement vehicle, but they have. We’ve ended up with a bifurcated system that has the upper third of society doing better and everyone else doing worse. Statistics show that people retiring now who have been invested in 401(k)s rather than traditional defined-benefit pensions are less well off than those who came before them. That’s because 401(k)s typically work best for people who work for big companies, with salaries that allow them to put away double-digit percentages of their income, and who have either the sophistication to choose their own asset allocations well or a benefits department that offers up smart options and auto-enrolls them in the plan.
The problem is, most Americans don’t fall within that group. Only 64% of private-sector workers have any kind of formal retirement plan, and fewer than half sign up for one. What’s more, the number of people with access to plans is declining; part-time and freelance workers usually don’t qualify. With the situation becoming increasingly dire, there is a drumbeat to reform the 401(k) system. Options include making enrollment mandatory, providing state-sponsored IRAs (or even national ones like Obama’s MyRA, which is based on the highly successful, low-fee Thrift Savings Plan offered to federal workers) and cutting red tape and costs so that more small businesses could offer employees 401(k) plans.
But the efforts have been piecemeal and ineffectual. Some critics blame the financial-industry lobby. In a letter to the California treasurer late last year arguing against the CSC plan, SIFMA contended that such programs would “directly compete for business with a wide range of California financial-services firms” and that state money should be put not into creating universal retirement plans but into educating individuals “about the benefits of early and regular savings for retirement.”
De León responds that it’s asking a lot of many workers to navigate the complex investment choices in many private plans. Indeed, over time, passive index funds typically beat all but a handful of actively managed funds, and many individual workers don’t have access to the highest-performing vehicles.
That’s why many retirement scholars would like to see the entire system changed, starting with 401(k) plans themselves. Harkin’s bill, the USA Retirement Funds Act, aims to make it more difficult for people to borrow from 401(k)s. This “leakage,” when savers tap their retirement funds prematurely, is a big reason people come up short in retirement. Harkin’s proposal would also shift the standard payout from a lump sum to a steady income stream in retirement.
Some experts would also like to see the government force more workers to save. For those who have access to 401(k)s, “Congress should make automatic enrollment mandatory, and plans should invest people in low- or no-fee index funds,” says Alicia Munnell, director of Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research. She and others also suggest establishing third-party administrators that would run the programs for groups of companies–bringing together more workers, creating better economies of scale, lowering fees and raising returns.
Governments are, of course, a possible candidate to run such programs–that’s essentially what de León is proposing to do for workers who are currently not covered by any other plan. Critics say government has a poor track record when it comes to protecting retiree savings, citing public-employee pensions in cities like Stockton, Calif. De León counters that unlike public-pension plans that promised 8% returns a year and cushy retirements, the CSC model has more modest aspirations–around 3% returns and a “livable yearly wage in retirement.”
Unfortunately, truly fixing American retirement will likely take more than even mandatory 401(k) plans and diminished expectations. Social Security reform is a subject that must be debated soon, in a real way, if we want to avoid having a generation of elderly poor. The fact that fewer than 10% of America’s elderly are currently poor largely reflects the contribution of Social Security to their income. Without it, says Pew’s Paul Taylor, author of the book The Next America, about half of people over 65 would be poor.
Beyond that, it’s probably inevitable that we’ll all be working longer. Munnell of the Center for Retirement Research points out that delaying the start of Social Security benefits from age 62 to 70 could increase monthly payouts by 76%. “Most of us are healthier and have less physically demanding jobs than our parents and grandparents,” Munnell says. “Stretching out our work lives is a sensible option.”
Changing our households to return to a once common multifamily structure, as Paula Dromi and her son have done, may be another. Taylor is hopeful that such forced communal living may actually help spark the tough political debate needed to reform entitlements and enhance retirement security while continuing to invest in our economy for the sake of the young. The portion of the population most worried about retirement are the 20- and 30-somethings who see an uncertain future as they struggle to pay off student loans and establish themselves in the work world, and perhaps lean on their parents for support. “There’s a growing sense, for all the generations, that no one has been spared and everyone is suffering to some extent,” says Taylor. “There’s also a sense that we’re all in this together–and maybe that has the potential to change this zero-sum debate.” If we’re lucky, that may help us find the way to a system in which people of all generations can retire with security and dignity.
This appears in the June 30, 2014 issue of TIME.