43% face bleaker retirement

New study says many haven't saved enough

June 09, 2006|By JONATHAN PETERSON | JONATHAN PETERSON,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Almost one in two American families are headed toward years of financial struggle in retirement, according to a new report that says workers are unprepared for cuts in pension and Social Security income.

The Boston College study presumes that most people need to replace 65 percent to 85 percent of their annual income in their working years to stay secure in retirement. But 43 percent of U.S. households will fall at least 10 percent short of that range, the study found, using what it said were conservative projections.

The percentage of households at risk of an insecure retirement rises to 66 percent under a less rosy set of assumptions - for example, if workers retire at age 63 instead of at 65.

"Unless Americans change their ways, many will struggle in retirement," said Alicia H. Munnell, director of the study and a former member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers. "There is no silver bullet," she added. "The answer is saving more and working longer."

Saying it hoped to draw attention to the issue, Boston College unveiled a new National Retirement Risk Index based on survey data from 4,500 households in the Federal Reserve's 2004 Survey of Consumer Finances. Researchers calculated that the risk index has risen from 31 percent in 1983 to 43 percent in 2004.

Baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964 are generally in better shape than members of Generation X, born between 1965 and 1972, the report said. That is primarily because these younger workers face the prospect of diminished Social Security income, and fewer of them will have pensions.

"Americans weaned on post-war affluence have come to expect an extended period of leisure at the end of their work life," the report noted. "And, indeed, the majority of today's retirees are able to afford a decent retirement. However, this group is living in a `golden age' that will fade as Baby Boomers and Generation X-ers reach traditional retirement ages in the coming decades."

The study is the latest addition to a growing body of research that suggests households headed by working-age adults are poorly prepared to meet their financial needs of retirement.

In April, the Employee Benefit Research Institute warned that many Americans "have made no estimate of how much they will need to live comfortably once they retire."

The institute said that people's expectations for retirement are "like a piece of Swiss cheese - full of holes."

The Boston College report said the grim outlook is being driven by a variety of factors, including:

Social Security will replace a smaller share of people's pre-retirement income in the future. The reasons include increased taxation of benefits and higher Medicare premiums. In addition, the retirement age for full benefits will increase to 67 for people born after 1959, up from 65 now.

Companies have abandoned costly traditional pensions, which guarantee monthly income for life, in favor of contributions to individual 401(k) plans overseen by the employees themselves. In 2004, the typical older worker nearing retirement had just $60,000 in 401(k) and individual retirement accounts.

People save too little. "Most of the working age population saves virtually nothing outside of their employer-sponsored pension plan," according to the report.

The price tag of retirement is going up as longevity increases, particularly for health care expenses.

Jonathan Peterson writes for the Los Angeles Times. Times reporter Kathy M. Kristof contributed to this article.

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