Paul Bradbury—Getty Images
By Ruth Davis Konigsberg
June 1, 2015

It’s late spring, and retirement surveys are falling like so many cherry blossoms from the trees. Some of the results are profoundly grim, especially for Gen Xers. In one survey, 67% of Gen X respondents felt that the targets for how much you need to retire are way out of reach. Meanwhile, another survey, this one from Transamerica, found that 37% of workers expect one source of income in retirement to be…working. Finally, 18% of working Gen Xers don’t think that they will ever be able to retire, according to a Northwestern Mutual survey.

By contrast, the Employee Benefits Research Institute’s annual survey found that retirement confidence is actually improving, with 22% of respondents now very confident about having enough money to retire, up from 13% in 2013, but concluded: “This increased level of confidence does not appear to be grounded on improved retirement preparations. In the aggregate, worker savings remain low and only a minority appears to be taking basic steps needed to prepare for retirement.”

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Given these scattered and disconnected findings, it’s very hard to know how much stock to take in such surveys. Perhaps, as with sex surveys, people are simply unreliable when asked questions about money. Self-assessments are always subjective, and respondents could be not only deceiving the survey-takers but themselves as well. Studies have shown that self-assessments about finance tend to be a poor measure of financial well-being. People with low financial literacy are unaware of far-off deficits such as retirement, while people with high financial literacy are not only more aware but also tend to compare their wealth relative to peers in their socioeconomic group.

If that’s really the case, then the people who are most pessimistic might actually be in fine shape, while the people who are in the most need of help are also most oblivious. But that might be a bit of a stretch. A more obvious factor is that it’s much harder to save for retirement when you have a low-wage job with no employer-sponsored savings plan, such as a 401(k). Retirement account ownership is heavily concentrated among higher-income households. That’s the key reason Obama created the MyRA plan, which is designed to make retirement savings accounts more accessible to lower-income workers and those just starting out.

The term “retirement crisis” is invoked frequently, but as Scott Burns of the Houston Chronicle recently suggested, it might actually be more accurate to say that what we are currently facing is a retirement triage:

“One-third of households are well equipped to retire. They have multiple sources of income in greater amounts than most people.
One-third of households have assets to work with. They can make decisions that will make a major difference in their retirement security and success. One-third of households are lost causes. They have Social Security but little, or nothing, else.”

In other words, it would be more helpful to concentrate on hard data on savings and investing trends, rather than whether people are feeling confident that they will have enough money or not. Feelings are real, but numbers speak volumes.

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Konigsberg is the author of The Truth About Grief, a contributor to the anthology Money Changes Everything, and a director at Arden Asset Management. The views expressed are solely her own.

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