*The Enron scandal has many people rushing to rid 401(k) plans of ill-advised investments. But the uproar overlooks another shortcoming in the nation’s retirement system. People forced to finance their pensions with their own savings are now facing a new retirement age. While their parents stopped working at 65, the children are finding that they must stay on the job until their late 60’s or early 70’s if they want to live as well in retirement.h2. p. That calculation is just beginning to roll off the spreadsheets of the nation’s economists and pension experts. We all knew, without Enron, that too many 401(k) plans were overinvested in the sponsoring company’s stock. We knew, also without Enron, that most people do not voluntarily save enough, and what they save is often not invested wisely. The rising stock market papered over these shortcomings. But now that the boom is gone, and the hubris with it, the inevitable bottom line of a 401(k) system ? postponed retirement ? is surfacing.
“There are not yet enough studies to pinpoint the new retirement age, but it is probably between 68 and 70,” said Annika Sunden, an associate director of Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research.
Ignoring such talk, people in their 40’s still look forward to retirement in their early 60’s, pollsters say. But reality is already different. Forty percent of the people who have saved for their retirement and are now 67 are still on the job, Ms. Sunden reports, compared with only 20 percent of the 67-year- olds with company-financed pension plans.
The 67-year-olds were in their mid-40’s when Congress, in the late 1970’s, authorized tax-deferred 401(k) plans. And without their knowing it, their retirement years changed. With that legislation, the nation began a gradual shift from a private-sector pension system financed by the employer toward a system financed mainly by employees. The employer-financed pensions, combined with Social Security, produced a retirement income at age 65 equal to nearly 60 percent of a typical worker’s preretirement pay, according to various studies. The employee-financed system is a distant second. Added to Social Security, the earnings from 401(k) savings produce a typical pension, at age 65, that is less than 50 percent of preretirement pay.
How to close the gap? Teresa Ghilarducci , an economist and pension expert at theUniversity of Notre Dame,offers a back-of-the- envelope calculation. Let’s say you are nearly 65. Your income is $50,000, having risen gradually from $30,000. Your 401(k) savings are $33,600, which is right at the median for people in the 55-through-64 age group, according to the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finance.
Social Security, in this example, provides nearly 40 percent of the preretirement income. The return on the 401(k) contributes an additional 4.7 percent, assuming the savings earn 5 percent above the inflation rate, or roughly 7 percent today, which is more than most 401(k) plans are earning. Given this math, raising the retirement age is looming as the route of least resistance to closing the gap between the 60 percent of preretirement income that many parents received when they stopped working in the 1970’s and the pensions that will go to their children, now in their 60’s.
Here another variable enters Ms. Ghilarducci’s calculation. Life expectancy for 65- year-old Americans is 84 years, up one year since the 1970’s. To collect 60 percent of preretirement income through age 84, people will have to continue working, and saving, to age 69.5. “You lose 4.5 years of leisure,” Ms. Ghilarducci said, “but you gain a year of life expectancy, so the net loss is 3.5 years of leisure.”
There is another, more equitable solution. Companies have invested much more in the pension plans they have financed than they contribute to 401(k)‘s. Prodded by Congress, they could contribute more to 401(k)’s, and maybe shave a year or two off the emerging retirement age.
Raising 401(k) retirement income through fatter company contributions would soften some of the present inequality. Only the upper end of the work force earns $75,000 or more, which is roughly sufficient, economists say, to save enough to finance, at age 65, a pension equal to at least 60 percent of preretirement pay.
In the absence of such solutions, Americans are revising their retirement age. From World War II until the mid-1980’s, they retired at ever younger ages. And then, as 401(k) plans gained acceptance and people stayed healthy longer, the trend gradually reversed. Company-financed plans guaranteed a monthly check for the rest of a retiree’s life; the 401(k)’s do not.
“That is causing people to think,” said Sara Rix, a policy adviser at AARP, an organization of people over 50, “that maybe if I work a couple of years longer, I’ll be O.K.” EFebruary 3, 2002