Retirement: Who’s ready, and who’s not?

Posted by on July 29, 2010 @ 12:10 pm in Retirement

Here’s the good news: Half of Americans are “on track” financially for retirement.

The bad news? The other half aren’t.

This is the main finding from a new report on “retirement readiness” in America, published earlier this month by the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) in Washington.

I’ve taken some liberty in summarizing the findings. But within rounding error, it’s a “glass half full, glass half empty” story.

Or is it?

Retirement readiness estimates for the U.S. population are notoriously sensitive to their initial assumptions—including how much a person needs in retirement. The EBRI study, like others, sets forth a retirement income goal (basic living expenses plus out-of-pocket health costs). Based on that goal, about half of Americans are prepared, and half aren’t.

But here’s an interesting wrinkle. Among the half of Americans who are unprepared, it turns out that 3 in 10 are at 80% or more of their goal. In other words, they are falling somewhat short—but not dramatically so. The other 2 in 10 unprepared Americans are further behind, meaning they are at less than 80% of their income goal. Many in this latter group are low-wage households, struggling to save.

This, to me, is a more realistic appraisal of retirement readiness in the U.S. Half of the population is on track—congratulations, and keep it up! Another 30% of Americans are making an effort but need to do more. And 20% of Americans are much further behind, and will struggle to reach a reasonable goal given their incomes.

To help close the retirement savings gap, Washington has a number of ideas, like tax incentives for low-income savers, or more retirement accounts at small businesses. Policy can have an impact. For example, the EBRI report mentions that recent changes to 401(k) plans (such as automatic enrollment) are improving retirement readiness.

Yet the savings challenge goes beyond the mechanics of tax incentives or retirement plan offerings. It gets to the heart of the decline in saving in the U.S. in recent decades, which is more cultural and attitudinal in nature. For all of us, improving retirement readiness has also got to be about changing the broader culture—from one glorifying consumption to one glorifying saving. This cultural shift seems particularly critical to the 3 in 10 Americans who are “close to goal” but need to do more.

For the moment, a close reading of the EBRI report is a reminder that all is not quite doom and gloom. There are many Americans on track for retirement—or getting close to readiness. But with headwinds coming from Social Security and Medicare (benefits will likely be lower in the future), it seems cultural change is indispensable if we truly expect to transform the outlook for retirement readiness in the U.S.

Note: The link to EBRI.org will open a new browser window. Except where noted, Vanguard accepts no responsibility for content on third-party websites.

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