Uneasy Economy Dashes Retirement Confidence

Americans doubt their ability to retire in a shaky economic climate.

Posted: 03/15/2011 04:02 PM EDT
Woman looks over retirement benefits

Stocks have bounced back but Americans continue to have serious doubts about their retirement security.

The percentage of workers who said they're "not at all" confident about having enough money for a comfortable retirement grew to 27 percent from 22 percent in 2010, according to an annual survey of workers and retirees released Tuesday.

That's the highest level in the 21-year history of the Retirement Confidence Survey, conducted by the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute in Washington and market researcher Mathew Greenwald & Associates Inc.

All told, half of all workers seriously question whether they'll have enough money for retirement. That's because another 23 percent said they are "not too confident" about whether their savings will be adequate.

A Few Highlights

—Savings: About a third of workers and retirees report they had to dip into savings last year just to pay for basic expenses.

— Debt: More than 20 percent of workers said debt is a major problem and 41 percent said it's a minor problem.

About 15 percent of retirees said debt is a major problem, more than double the percentage of respondents who reported having a major problem in 2005. Some 27 percent said it's a minor problem.

— Retirement Planning: About 70 percent of workers said they are "a lot" or "a little" behind schedule in planning for retirement; 15 percentage points higher than the response in 2005.

The percentage of workers reporting they were on track fell to 21 percent, from 37 percent in 2005.

Unemployment Factor

Continued high unemployment can take some of the credit for the deeper pessimism.

"Individuals may have jobs but they see family members, friends, and neighbors impacted by unemployment," said Greg Burrows, a retirement services executive at Principal Financial Group, one of the underwriters of the survey.

One measure that sheds some light on lower confidence is the 40 percent of workers out of a job for 27 weeks or longer, said Michael Sheldon, chief market strategist for RDM Financial, an adviser in Westport, Conn.

In prior recessions that never got above 25 to 30 percent, he said, "so this recession clearly has had a much wider and longer impact on the work force."

Working Longer

Economic conditions are forcing workers to redefine retirement, said the survey's co-author Jack VanDerhei, research director at EBRI. That often translates into working longer.

About a fourth of workers said the age at which they expected to retire has changed in the past year. Of those, almost 90 percent said they've pushed back their retirement age.

The top reasons cited for working longer are the poor economy, lack of faith in Social Security or other government programs, a change in employment situation, and inadequate finances to retire.

"I thought about retiring or about cutting back or doing things a little differently," said Dr. Harris Rabinovich, a Philadelphia child psychiatrist, "but I certainly feel that there's been pressure on me to work longer."

He saw his father live to 99 and his mother is still living at age 97. So at age 72 and with genetics apparently in his favor, Rabinovich is planning for the long-haul.

Still he recognizes that he's facing different issues than his parents. As a teacher, his father didn't amass a fortune, but he had a pension that he had the benefit of drawing on for 30 years.

"The whole game has changed," Rabinovich said. "Pensions are going the way of passenger pigeons."

Getting on Track

Younger workers, juggling college loan payments and retirement saving, worry about whether they're saving enough.

Mariha McGuigan, 27, works in human resources at LMI in McLean, Va., a not-for-profit strategic consulting firm. She saves 3 percent of her pay in her retirement plan, which the company matches.

"I'm putting in as much as I can but still I'm concerned about whether it is going to be enough," she said. "At least I want to get the match and at some point hope to put more away."

Her biggest concerns are whether Social Security is going to be around at all and what may happen with the cost of health care in the future.

As negative as the survey results sound, the one thing that emerges is that many more workers have become aware through the recession that retiring comfortably can't be taken for granted.

"We know from previous surveys that far too many people had false confidence," VanDerhei said.

More than 40 percent of workers said they or their spouse have tried to calculate what they'll need to retire comfortably. But a similar percentage of respondents said they determined their retirement savings needs by guessing.

As a result workers are not saving enough. More than half said they have less than $25,000 saved or invested, excluding the value of their home and any pension.

 

 

Photo: (Associated Press)

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