Our Ridiculous Approach to Retirement

I WORK on retirement policy, so friends often want to talk about their own retirement plans and prospects. While I am happy to have these conversations, my friends usually walk away feeling worse — for good reason.

Seventy-five percent of Americans nearing retirement age in 2010 had less than $30,000 in their retirement accounts. The specter of downward mobility in retirement is a looming reality for both middle- and higher-income workers. Almost half of middle-class workers, 49 percent, will be poor or near poor in retirement, living on a food budget of about $5 a day.
 
In my ad hoc retirement talks, I repeatedly hear about the “guy.” This is a for-profit investment adviser, often described as, “I have this guy who is pretty good, he always calls, doesn’t push me into investments.” When I ask how much the “guy” costs, or if the guy has fiduciary loyalty — to the client, not the firm — or if their investments do better than a standard low-fee benchmark, they inevitably don’t know. After hearing about their magical guy, I ask about their “number.”
 
To maintain living standards into old age we need roughly 20 times our annual income in financial wealth. If you earn $100,000 at retirement, you need about $2 million beyond what you will receive from Social Security. If you have an income-producing partner and a paid-off house, you need less. This number is startling in light of the stone-cold fact that most people aged 50 to 64 have nothing or next to nothing in retirement accounts and thus will rely solely on Social Security.
 
Even for those who know their “number” and are prepared for retirement (it happens, rarely), these conversations aren’t easy. At dinner one night, a friend told me how much he has in retirement assets and said he didn’t think he had saved enough. I mentally calculated his mortality, figured he would die sooner than he predicted, and told him cheerfully that he shouldn’t worry. (“Congratulations!”) But dying early is not the basis of a retirement plan.
 
If we manage to accept that our investments will likely not be enough, we usually enter another fantasy world — that of working longer. After all, people hear that 70 is the new 50, and a recent report from Boston College says that if people work until age 70, they will most likely have enough to retire on. Unfortunately, this ignores the reality that unemployment rates for those over 50 are increasing faster than for any other group and that displaced older workers face a higher risk of long-term unemployment than their younger counterparts. If those workers ever do get re-hired, it’s not without taking at least a 25 percent wage cut.