A crisis of confidence?

Posted by on March 23, 2012 @ 8:20 am in Retirement

The latest figures are out from the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) in Washington, D.C. Unsurprisingly, “retirement confidence” remains down from its peak in 2007, and is at levels similar to what we saw during the Great Recession.

What’s going on? In 2007, fully 70% of American workers were either “very” or “somewhat” confident about their retirement. By 2011, this group had fallen to 52%, a decline of 18 percentage points. Similarly, the number of workers on the negative side of confidence rose by 18 points—from 29% in 2007 to 47% in 2011. In short, we’ve moved from a 70/30 confidence/no confidence world to a 50/50 world.

That’s probably the most striking result of the EBRI study. The net effect of the Great Recession is that about one-fifth of workers report a deteriorating retirement picture. Honestly, after reading the headlines over the past few years, I thought the greatest economic and financial crisis since the Great Depression would have had a larger impact.

How does this compare with other metrics? Researchers at RAND found that 39% of households were touched by the recession—either experiencing unemployment, having negative home equity, or being in arrears on house payments.* Although it’s always a bit dangerous to compare different surveys, we effectively have about 4 in 10 households saying they suffered a major economic shock during the recession—but only 2 in 10 feel that their retirement prospects worsened since 2007.

I draw several lessons from the data. First, the housing and economic crisis didn’t uniformly devastate the retirement prospects for many Americans. It clearly has affected the outlook of a sizeable minority, and they are struggling. But the data suggest we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that “retirement” is uniformly endangered. Most people remain employed; most 401(k) accounts continue to grow; and many homeowners have positive equity.

Second, retirement confidence remains a good measure of current sentiment—what the psychologists might call “mood.” It’s more about what the word “retirement” evokes in the respondent’s mind today, less about the long-term numbers.

That stands to reason. As Daniel Kahneman points out in his new book, Thinking Fast and Slow, it’s much easier for most of us to answer the question “How do I feel about retirement today?” than to answer a much more difficult question, “What do the long-term numbers say?” The latter requires an effortful financial planning exercise, and our minds are much happier to answer an easy question quickly than work on answering a harder one.

Over time, I suspect that our current world of 50/50 confidence/no confidence will gradually drift to a more positive balance—in tandem with recovery in the job, housing, and stock markets.

* http://www.nber.org/papers/w16407.pdf

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